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Magic vs. Bird, Part II

One young quarterback is trying to lift the NFL's sorriest franchise into the realm of the respectable. The other spent his rookie campaign salvaging a lost season and nearly crashing a playoff party he had no reasonable right to attend.

As second-year starters trying to master QB 2.0 while skipping the tutorial, the Arizona Cardinals' Matt Leinart and the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young aren't shy about aiming exceptionally high. Now check out what these two precocious passers are trying to pull off.

"They want to be the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the NFL," says Chuck Price, one of Leinart's agents. "In terms of young guys who excel individually and have a very friendly rivalry and can carry the torch for sportsmanship and race relations, they have a chance to do something similar."

Right, like battling one another in an epic clash for a national collegiate championship (check), becoming instant stars in the pros (working on it), winning three MVPs apiece and a combined eight professional championships (gulp) and ushering in the golden age of a league in need of yin-and-yang saviors (never mind).

You may think Young and Leinart have no business comparing themselves to the Magic Man and Larry Legend, but on at least one level, you would be mistaken. The linkage of the two as a business enterprise is already in motion, with plans for them to co-host a golf tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a Lake Tahoe, Nevada-based father-son fantasy camp next offseason. Price, who previously worked as a marketing agent for a company owned by Johnson, envisions a humorous TV commercial featuring all four men.

Can an updated version of "Ebony and Ivory" featuring, say, Young Buck and Nick Lachey rapping over a Young-Leinart highlight video be far behind?

If all of this seems rather non-organic, hey, welcome to the 21st century. It's true that Johnson and Bird never consciously planned their shared place in history; indeed, the two men became friends only after suffering the repeated sting of defeat at one another's expense. But sequels are always a bit contrived, and Young and Leinart, born a week apart 24 years and three months ago, are about as perfectly cast as any NFL players could be, beginning with their dramatic showdown in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Don't just take it from me; consider the expertise of my former Sports Illustrated colleague and CBS college-hoops announcer extraordinaire Seth Davis, who is working on a book about the '79 NCAA title game between Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and Bird's Indiana State Sycamores.

"From a pure sporting perspective, the comparison is very apt, right down to the difference in their races – and the black guy won," Davis says. "But their rivalry can never have the global impact that the Magic-Bird rivalry did. In one two-hour span, the '79 final launched the NCAA tournament into the stratosphere and laid the groundwork for the NBA's resurrection. The main difference here is, the college football championship is already in the stratosphere, and the NFL hardly needs saving."

True, but the continued emergence of these two leaders and their teams could definitely help the league move on from the, uh, dog days of 2007 and the Michael Vick debacle that seems destined to drag down an otherwise impenetrable brand. Here are five reasons why Young and Leinart are uniquely positioned to pull it off.

1) They aren't afraid to take over a team: In June, I interviewed Young in a trailer on the set of a downtown L.A. studio where he was filming a commercial for Reebok. One of the first questions I threw at him was about his troubled teammate Pacman Jones, and whether Young was bothered by the cornerback's run of misbehavior that would lead to a season-long suspension by commissioner Roger Goodell. Though Young has socialized with Jones, and most players would be instinctively protective of a teammate, the quarterback didn't hesitate to make his feelings known. "You've got to be mad at him," Young said, "because he put himself in a bad situation, time and time again. He's one of the key players on our football team, and now he may be gone for the entire year? That hurts." Leinart, too, has shown a willingness to assert himself as a leader, even when it may not be popular to do so. When it became apparent that the Cardinals might take former Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson with the fifth overall pick in April's NFL draft, Leinart, who believed in incumbent Edgerrin James, successfully lobbied new Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves not to do so.

2) They get it: Teammates go out of their way to praise Young and Leinart as humble leaders who, despite their obvious bravado, aren't caught up in individual glory. And as far as the Magic/Bird comparisons, Young is suitably deferential, saying, "Matt and I have some plans, but we don't want to rush it. We definitely want to earn our respect in the NFL. We don't want to get too above our heads, because those two guys we're comparing ourselves to are legends."

3) They're ballers: "Football's a great sport, and it has allowed me to be very successful," Young says. "But my true love is basketball." You can see it on the practice field: Young is so calm and adaptable in the pocket, even as pass-rushers descend, he looks more like a great point guard ready to break down a defender than a guy in danger of being pummeled. At last Monday's practice at the team's training facility in Nashville, Tenn.,Young faked a handoff to one receiver and then flipped a stylish, no-look pitch to wideout Biren Ealy coming around the backside for a reverse. Leinart's not quite that smooth, but he did date a USC women's basketball player (Brynn Cameron, with whom he has a 10-month-old son, Cole) and set a Pop-a-Shot record at actor Wilmer Valderrama's house.

4) They're not perfect, but they learn from their mistakes: Last year, after the Cardinals blew a 20-point lead and suffered that season-destroying defeat to the Chicago Bears on Monday night, Leinart hurled his helmet halfway across the field, incurring the ire of coach Denny Green. He soon came to understand that, as the starting quarterback, he had to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check to make sure his teammates didn't follow suit. Young was benched for the Titans' first preseason game this summer by coach Jeff Fisher because the previous night he'd left the team's Nashville hotel without permission to sleep in his own bed. Young pouted for a few days afterward but now gets it. "I was hurt when I missed that game," he says, "but that was my key that I can't do whatever I want to do. As players, if we do slip up and mess up, we're going to get punished. Jeff Fisher's going to keep us in a straight line, and I feel like that's a good thing."

5) Their friendship is sincere: Young remembers answering his cell phone while sitting in the training room at the University of Texas after practice one afternoon and being stunned that Leinart, his USC counterpart, was on the line. "Ever since then we've had a close relationship," Young says. "A lot of people try to make us out as rivals, but I want to see him succeed at all costs. Even if we play each other, I hope he does well, and let the best man win."

And if it turns out to be win-win – for the Titans and Cardinals, for Young and Leinart – get ready for the marketing machine to milk the nostalgic tie-in for all it's worth. The only remaining question is which quarterback gets to be which hoops Hall of Famer.

"Matt and Vince talk about it," Price says, "and the only sticking point is that they both want to be Magic. Vince says, ‘I'm black, and I won the championship in college.' Matt says, ‘Yeah, but I'm the Hollywood guy.'"

Says Young: "It doesn't really matter who's who. Either or. We're both silly, and we're both leaders."

"Who's Magic?" Leinart asks. "Uh, well … I think it's got to be Vince."

Guys, guys, guys. This is a rivalry?

Cut!

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

If Daunte Culpepper doesn't start the season opener for the Oakland Raiders, his coach will be known in the locker room as Lame Kiffin. … This one goes against my obvious allegiances, but of the first-round rookie running backs, the Minnesota Vikings' Peterson will have the bigger impact than the Buffalo Bills' Marshawn Lynch. … David Beckham's arrival in the States may indeed boost soccer's profile, but we will never, ever grow comfortable with referring to him as "Becks."

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Ber-kel-ey, Ber-kel-ey, ain't no place I'd rather be. Yes, Deadheads, I'll be at Memorial Stadium to see Cal tangle with Tennessee on Saturday. Hopefully, this time, the Golden Bears will show up, too.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1) FOX just bought a reality-show pitch featuring a traveling softball team comprised of the mothers of Denver Broncos halfback Travis Henry's children.
2) Before absorbing his first blindside hit Saturday evening, Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge will scream "Pull My Finger!"
3) I would feel more secure in an airport bathroom with Idaho Sen. Larry Craig than running a crossing route into the heart of the Ravens' defense in a playoff game.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Last Sunday night in Nashville, Titans coach Jeff Fisher picked me up for dinner in a white Nissan Titan V8 pickup. Two years ago, I remember then-San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer rolling up to training camp in a black Dodge Charger. I'm starting to see a trend here, which means I have a decent idea what it would be like to hitch a ride with Scott Linehan (think Dodge commercial), Mike Shanahan (think O.J. chase) or Jack Del Rio (think luxury car). But what I really want to do is get whisked away by Eric Mangini.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

The Burning Man, torched four days before his time by a shirtless renegade with a painted face. Harsh.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK "Marinovich skateboard."

IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …

In the debut of The Gameface's newest feature, the first of a distinguished list of Golden Bear luminaries demonstrates his loyalty to the boys in blue and gold by promising to forego some salient pleasures until (we hope) the Bears break their 49-year Rose Bowl drought on Jan. 1, 2008. Leading off is Bob (Jeans) Haas, the Levi-Strauss chairman of the board who, should No. 12 Cal prevail over No. 15 Tennessee on Saturday, may become the chairman of the bored in his own home. Declares Haas: " When Cal beats Tennessee I'll give up drugs, sex and rock-and-roll 'till Jan. 1, 2008." If the Bears get it done, we eagerly await the reaction of Bob's wife, Colleen, whom we assume was not consulted.

TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)

"I love your balls … no holds barred and the fact that you're the one getting paid and the people who are not, are just mad because their opinions never really mattered. You just make a valid point that you're good at what you do and the bored naysayers get their 15 seconds at the bottom of the column. Keep up the good work! I've been reading your columns from the start :)"
Jaye
Western New York

Thanks, Jaye. My balls and I are blushing.

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"I know you are good friends with Edge and I know he allows you access vital for your column, and it doesn't make sense to bite the hand that feeds you, but, still, how can you not mention his role in that loss to the Bears? Do you honestly believe he should get no blame for fumbling away the lead? Over and beyond that, as frustrated as he no doubt was about last season, how can he in good conscience skip the flight and ditch out on a team that just paid him so much money? He sounds like a real douchebag."
Kevin
Minneapolis

Hmmm. Let's see … Peyton Manning, for one, chose a different term for describing James: "Great teammate." His decision not to get on the team bus in your lovely city last November may not have been his proudest moment, but he was going to visit his critically ill grandmother. As for the fumble, yes, that was one of several mistakes that doomed the Cardinals late in that game against the Bears. But the D-word? All I can tell you is that James is relentlessly positive, rarely says a bad word about anyone and is almost universally loved in NFL circles.

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"As a fellow stickler for accuracy, I must know … are you sure it was 'Rosie's' lime juice? If so, was it the one from The Jetsons, the Riveter, or perhaps O'Donnell? I am familiar with a product known as Rose's Lime Juice, but I doubt that is the one. I can conceive of no reason to mix Rose's and Patron."
Anthony McGinnis
Tacoma, Wash.

You're right, I seem to have goofed. What can I say? It was loud in the club … or it's possible I heard it right, and James has grown so fond of the mixer in question that he has given it a nickname. You know, like Al Pacino's character in "The Scent of the Woman" and his "John" Daniels.

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"In regards to the gentleman who felt it necessary to voice his strident disapproval of your comparison of dogfighting to hunting I would suggest he consider bullfighting. This sport, steeped in tradition in not only Spain but parts of the Arab world, is hardly ever criticized but far more often romanticized. You can say what you want about the merits of dogs over cattle but in the end they are still animals and as my experiences in Vietnam and Korea would attest, both are quite tasty!"
Chris
Dubai via New York City

OK, the Vick controversy has officially spiraled out of control: The dog-eaters are weighing in.

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"This story is so weak! Nerd you dont have a clue. You should be writting for a H.S. newspaper."
Wayne
Staunton, Va.

Perhaps. But if you were also on the staff, I'd prefer to be editting.

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" 'Now if I were going to enter a fantasy league for the ass … well, let's just say I'm a big women's soccer fan.' Get a clue, Mike. Women's volleyball, my friend, women's volleyball."
Harry O
Houston

Cool. Let's hit the beach.

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"Just watched (Miami Dolphins running back) Ronnie Brown tear up the Bucs defense Saturday night. You have a better chance of growing a full head of hair before he losses his job! Trash blogger!"
Dolfan
West Palm Beach, Fla.

Dude, you're making me cry. Or perhaps it's just the Propecia dripping down my forehead that's stinging my eyes.

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"I noticed that on the Yahoo! Sports front page, you're wearing your glasses in your photo, but the photo in your column shows you without the glasses. Which makes me wonder: Did you ditch the glasses just because a fellow reader called them 'Star Trek' glasses? Just a question that's been bothering me for the past couple weeks (clearly, I need to find myself a hobby)."
Michael Wang
Location unknown

Hey, if I listened to every emailer's advice on how to improve my appearance, I'd look like Cher by Halloween. In fairness, I don't wear glasses all the time – only when I need to see.

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"What kind of a fan are you? You picked your school to go to the Rose Bowl, which means that you are giving up on the national championships."
Warren Usui
Pacific Palisades, Calif.

I'm the kind of fan whose school hasn't gone to the Rose Bowl in his lifetime … and who'd love to deal with the disappointment of missing out on a trip to Pasadena, Calif., to play for a BCS title.

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"Careful. Your Stanford envy is showing. Maybe if you'd worked just a little harder in high school, you might have been admitted, instead of (assuming from your post) having to spend your undergraduate years attending public school in a third world city. Typical Bear attitude. You're bad losers, but just as bad when you're riding high and winning. Try to explain why you always choke in the big ones, and haven't been to Pasadena since Joe Kapp, and you lost that one too. And good luck building a new stadium in the People's Republic. Historically you trail Stanford in everything that counts: wins in the series, Rose Bowl appearances and victories, Bowl appearances and victories, and in overall academic achievements, but don't let the facts get in the way."
John Olenchalk
Palo Alto, Calif.

Wow, five consecutive Big Game defeats, and we're finally starting to see signs of life on the Farm? Oooh, what next? A full 50,000-seat stadium? A rugby team that won't run and hide because it fears for its safety on the pitch? Scores of Stanford fans admitting they care? I'll happily debate you on the academic-achievement front all day long – start by asking anyone who attended both schools which is tougher – but until then, you can kiss my Axe.

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"Before you give Martin Lawrence the Peerless Price role, you better take another look at Aaron Brooks' picture."
Bobo
Location unknown

Good call. You can be my casting director anytime.

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"I listen to your video about Randy Moss and I can tell you have never play football you need to stick to eating popcorn up in the stands ,where do you think a lot of these player come from (hard lives)you have a mix culture of people playing football white guy that there family have money and want them to play football and poor black guys that are gifted so see mike everybody is different on the football feild and off the field everybody didn't come from the suburbs , gifted poor white guy who lived close to randys home town"
Jack D. Newton
Colorado

I'll tell you this: If Randy Moss can still run like this sentence, I may have to change my stance.

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"Maybe you forgot that the Pats have picked up some other players who were disgruntled with their teams and wanted to play for a winner (i.e. Corey Dillon). That seemed to work out quite well. You might want to give (Tom) Brady, the Pats and Randy a chance before running your mouth as if you know what's good for everyone before the season's even started. Aren't there some more pressing issues in the NFL that will give you a chance to expound?"
Rob Niebling
Location unknown

Not necessarily, though stay tuned and you may get your wish next week. In the meantime, consider this: Running my mouth is what I do.

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"49ers are gonna take the west, you bungholle loser."
Dan
Location unknown

Since when are Raiders fans partial to the Niners?

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"Hey Michael, After reading your article on training camps and the heat problems, I have a question: Why do so many teams train in hot climates? Being in Canada near the Rockies, even in peak summer, the temperature rarely gets above 86°F here. I'm sure there are places in the States that are similar. In the mountains players get some altitude training and cooler temperatures. Boxers have used it historically, but it seems football teams rarely do. Why? Thanks."
Paul
Calgary

Because a long time ago, certain macho football coaches decided that the only way to instill toughness in players was to make them sweat profusely and collapse from exhaustion, and anyone who questions that philosophy is dismissed like … well, like Alberta in a game of Risk.

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"When that reader called you a 'buffon,' that reader was referring to the goalkeeper for Italy. So don't get offended, it was a compliment; he is a world class keeper. On another note, the hypocrisy of people is astounding, I agree with that point. I don't understand how any of these people could oppose this dogfighting scandal but at one point have supported the war in Iraq (not saying they all did, but I'm sure some of them did). What about the innocent Iraqi kids that are getting slaughtered over there? Where are those protests? How come I haven't seen any of those PETA people protesting the situation in Darfur? I'm sure most of them would raise money to get the wildlife out of Darfur and leave the civilians to die. Look, I'm not saying that one has to go donate tons of money or protest some of these atrocities. All I am saying is if you are sickened by the dogfighting and then are pro-abortion (they never had a chance either), or would rather go to a PETA protest than stop to look a homeless man in the eye or give him a dollar, then you have some screwed-up priorities."
David
San Francisco

Look, I don't know about all that, but given this latest revelation, I guess I have no problem being called a (Gianluigi) Buffon. Now, if someone calls me a 'Barthez,' we're going to have a problem.