NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Keith Bulluck sat on a stool in the corner of a crowded watering hole seeking chicken fingers, a clear view of the TV and a little bit of peace. The Tennessee Titans' ferocious outside linebacker had just spent way too much of his Sunday afternoon repelling the Atlanta Falcons in a 20-13 victory at nearby LP Field, and now he had company at the Midtown Corner Pub, and it looked like one more big hit might be forthcoming.
"When you were in Cover 3, who blew the coverage on that play?" asked a bald man seated next to Bulluck who looked like a smaller, softer version of Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Bulluck glared at the man, and he repeated the question.
"Dude," Bulluck said, "I don't know which (expletive) play you're talking about or what you even mean."
The bald man – a total stranger, I soon learned – shook his head and said, "He's in a bad mood" before relocating.
With arms as thick and chiseled as totem poles and a New York brashness a cabbie or Carnegie Deli waitress would love, Bulluck doesn't have to raise his voice to be intimidating. He is cartoonishly imposing, a Popeye come to life who, his friends tell him, looks "bigger in high-definition." He speaks loudest on Sundays, literally and figuratively, though until recently few people outside of Music City seem to have noticed.
"Nobody pays attention to what's going on down here," Bulluck said a couple of minutes after I took the bald dude's seat. "You know what I mean?"
A quarter of the way through Tennessee's season, it's time to start noticing perhaps the league's most surprising early-season success story. The Titans (3-1), whose only stumble was a narrow defeat to the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, have won nine of their past 11 games, and not only because of second-year quarterback Vince Young's mobile magic.
On Sunday, in a game in which Tennessee's offense and special teams, in the words of veteran receiver Eric Moulds, "did everything we could to lose," Bulluck and his fellow defenders refused to endorse that outcome. Overcoming five turnovers and a first-and-goal for the Falcons from the 1-yard-line with two minutes remaining, the Titans' D did enough to remind its 30-year-old leader of the good old days, when the team was up there with the NFL's elite.
Back then – before the losing began and the negativity set in and the franchise quarterback got locked out of the team facility – Bulluck was the young, eager tackling leader of a close-knit unit he called the "Tennessee Tyrants." Even as his team crumbled around him, his own effort or performance never fell off. Now he is one of the driving forces behind a resurgence he didn't see coming.
"We're sending a message to the NFL: The Tennessee Tyrants are coming back," Bulluck proclaimed, smiling, after he got some food in him. "We're not back yet, but we're coming back fast. Tell those teams to check their schedules and make sure Tennessee's not on it, because we're coming for 'em."
Bulluck, coming off a three-interception feast against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football two weeks ago, had a relatively quiet effort against the Falcons. He made five tackles, but displayed his usual blend of sideline-to-sideline speed, punishing hits and adept recognition of offensive schemes. The biggest plays were provided by Vanden Bosch (game-ending sack of Byron Leftwich), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (blew through the line and forced Leftwich into an errant pitch on first-and-goal from the 1) and nickel back Vincent Fuller (a 76-yard interception return for the go-ahead touchdown).
Yet Bulluck, in the words of Titans coach Jeff Fisher, is "kind of the heart of the defense. It's interesting that his attitude is permeating through the rest of the team. Everyone's playing with a chip on his shoulder. You have to play defense with emotion, and he's an emotional, passionate player."
It was a year ago, after the Titans' fourth game, when Bulluck's emotion threatened to tear up an already fractious locker room. Two years of losing, followed by the offseason decision to ban longtime quarterback Steve McNair from working out at the team's facility because of injury paranoia and salary-cap concerns (he was subsequently traded to the Ravens), had created a toxic atmosphere, and a 45-14 home defeat to the Cowboys dropped the Titans to 0-4. In that game Young made his first career start and Haynesworth angrily stomped on the face of Dallas center Andre Gurode, provoking a five-game NFL suspension.
In the locker room, Bulluck recalls, Fisher "was giving his after-the-game talk, saying the things a head coach has to say to keep his team intact, but what he was saying, at that point, wasn't enough for me. I'd been hearing that (expletive) for 2½ years, and I was mouthing back under my breath, making little side comments like, 'I'm not buying it anymore.' I wasn't being very professional."
The next day Fisher called Bulluck into his office and told him, "You can take this team down or help lift it up. It's up to you." Shortly thereafter Bulluck called a players only meeting, challenging teammates to support one another through trying times and fight through their struggles together.
"I just had a heart-to-heart about football, about life, about being a man," he says. "A lot of guys felt me."
The Titans played well the next week in a 14-13 defeat at Indy, rallied to go 8-8 and came back stronger in '07 despite the year-long suspension of star cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, with whom Bulluck socialized last Friday night. "He's doing well," Bulluck said of Jones, "but he has to be humbled by how well we're playing without him." True to his blunt nature, Bulluck is quick to criticize Jones for his immaturity and poor judgment but also considers him a friend and tries to remain supportive.
"When I came in as a rookie," Bulluck remembers, "I kept my mouth shut. I was always mature for my age, so I didn't come in like Pacman or anything like that."
Raised by a friend's single mother in Clarkstown, N.Y. after his own mother essentially abandoned him at age 12, Bulluck willed himself to athletic excellence, starring at Syracuse before getting picked in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. The Titans were coming off their first Super Bowl appearance, and Bulluck didn't crack the talented starting lineup until his third season, which ended with an AFC Championship game defeat. He had 180 tackles in '02, followed by seasons of 171, 171, 160 and 151, leading the team each year. (Tackles are an unofficial stat, so the numbers vary by source.)
Yet because Bulluck rushes the passer only occasionally and thus fails to put up big sack numbers, he often goes unnoticed in voting for postseason awards and has made just one Pro Bowl, following the '03 campaign.
"Over the years, for whatever reason, he hasn't gotten his just due," Falcons halfback Warrick Dunn said after Sunday's game. "He's a guy who just keeps going and going and going and makes play after play, yet he's never mentioned with the elite linebackers, and that's not right."
Bulluck swears he doesn't mind. "Look at a guy like (Jaguars halfback) Fred Taylor," he says. "He's gained almost 10,000 yards yet has never made a Pro Bowl, and I like to think I'm in that category. I like to call it 'from concentrate, no preservatives.' And don't get me wrong. I like where I'm at."
At that moment Bulluck, having silently dispensed with a small procession of autograph seekers while answering dozens of questions with illuminating honesty, had achieved happiness on his corner stool. The NFL's answer to Popeye was now just a guy in a bar watching the Colts win big and blowing off steam after a rough day at the office.
"Today was just one of those days," he said. "Every time we made a mistake and the defense had to go back out there, I'd say to myself, 'I can't believe it.' I didn't say anything out loud, though. Those are my teammates, and I know they're not trying to screw up on purpose. We're all in this together."
He sounded nothing like a tyrant, though he still looked intimidating as hell.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Can the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts please slow down? Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott always used to preach that "great teams don't become great until November or December" – until then it was all about finding a way to win, flaws be damned. But I'm starting to wonder whether the Bradys and the Mannings might be exceptions to Ronnie's rule. (Not to be confused with the Ronnie Lott Rule in the drinking game "Mexicali") If these teams stay undefeated until their Nov. 4 showdown at the RCA Dome (and, among other things, that would require New England to beat the Cowboys at Texas Stadium next Sunday), it will be rightly hailed as the most compelling regular season matchup of the 21st century.
• It requires a seismic jolt to the earth's electromagnetic field to get Cal people excited about Stanford's success, but the quest for a Pac-10 title and a mutual hatred of a certain school to the south conspired to do so Saturday night. When I landed in Nashville, Tenn., at 10:15 p.m. CT, there were 18 text messages waiting on my BlackBerry, all of them from fellow Bears hailing the Cardinal's stunning upset of USC and, given Florida's lead over LSU at the time, the notion that Cal might move up to No. 1 in the polls. As it is, we'll happily take our first No. 2 ranking since 1951 and salute our archrivals for overcoming virtually every possible form of adversity and scoring one of the biggest upsets we can ever remember. And Jim Harbaugh, one of my favorites back in his Captain Comeback days? He's the guy who got into a war of words with Pete Carroll back in the spring, held his ground by defiantly proclaiming, "… we bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University" – and went down and punked Pete in his own palace. Congratulations to all my Cardinal friends, including Andy Sands, John Elway, Julie Foudy and Jason Cole, and thank you Cardinal for, among other things, reminding the Bears to show up for the 110th Big Game on Dec. 1.
• As for those other Bears, the ones looking at a serious post-Super Bowl crisis heading into Lambeau Field on Sunday night, it's too early to know whether their utterly macho comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers will trigger a revival. But given that they play in the NFC, it's a distinct possibility. Brian Urlacher led the way, as always, but the biggest stud of all was cornerback Charles Tillman, who threw a pair of right-crosses to force Green Bay fumbles and keep the game close in the first half. With the Packers threatening to pull away in both the game and the NFC North race, Tillman put the 'nut' in Peanut.
• I've certainly spent enough time ripping Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers this season that I feel compelled at least to acknowledge their 41-3 thrashing of the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, which might prove to have been a season-saving victory. But to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in "Pulp Fiction" – let's not start scratching each other's backs just yet.
• I have no idea what New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress' numbers are this season, but he has made more of a positive impact in 2007 than most of the league's other offensive players, including his tremendous 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run that killed the New York Jets in the Battle of Jersey. And he's playing hurt. I want him on my reality team.
• In addition to bearing a stark resemblance to Steve Stifler of "American Pie" fame, Kris Brown is one of the NFL's most clutch kickers. He proved it in a big way on Sunday, nailing three field goals of 54 yards or more (no NFL kicker had hit one from farther than 53 in '07 before Sunday) and five overall, including the 57-yarder with one second remaining that gave the Texans a 22-19 victory over the Dolphins. And he did all this after hurting his left heel on his first kickoff and taking a pain-killing shot – because, you know, he's no wimpy kicker. If anyone has ever seen Brown and Seann William Scott in the same stadium, please submit visual proof.
• It was an emotional Sunday for the O.G.s, with Kurt Warner returning to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis to a standing ovation and leaving as both a winner (spurring the Cardinals to a 34-31 victory over the winless Rams) and an undisputed starter after Matt Leinart suffered a broken collarbone. His wife, Brenda, was in her old front-row seat from the Greatest Show On Turf glory days, but Kurt decided against reprising the customary postgame kiss as he was leaving the field. "He thought it would be disrespectful to the Rams," Brenda explained. "Too nice of an old dude!" Meanwhile, with embattled St. Louis coach Scott Linehan taking over the play-calling and Gus Frerotte playing in place of the injured Marc Bulger, the Rams' offense, even without Steven Jackson and Isaac Bruce, finally showed signs of a pulse. Frerotte, however, was beating himself up afterward for the interception he threw to Rod Hood early in the fourth quarter that the Cards cornerback returned 68 yards for a score. "It was one of those plays where you're just lying on the ground thinking, 'I can't believe I just did that,'" Frerotte said after returning home Sunday night. In San Francisco, Trent Dilfer came up just short against the Ravens, celebrating wildly after throwing a pretty 23-yard touchdown pass to Arnaz Battle but wincing as Joe Nedney missed a late field goal that doomed the 49ers to a 9-7 defeat. I know he made peace with ex-coach Brian Billick this week, but trust me, Dilfer wanted that game very, very badly.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• When I interviewed the Dolphins' Jason Taylor for a profile in Sports Illustrated a few months ago, we talked about Trent Green, whom the Dolphins were angling to acquire from Kansas City. Noting that Green, soon to turn 37, had missed a significant portion of last season after suffering a severe concussion in the Chiefs' season opener, Taylor said, "He'd better not get hit. One big hit, and he could be scrambled eggs." Let's pray that the knee to the head that forced Green to leave Sunday's game at Houston strapped to a stretcher doesn't turn out to be nearly that severe, but it does make those of us who care for one of the sport's true good guys wonder if now might be a great time to call it quits.
• Then again, if you listen to Texans defensive tackle Travis Johnson – who taunted Green as he lay face down on the turf – the quarterback wanted to absorb the equivalent of a punch to the cranium from Mike Tyson in his prime. After the game, Johnson, despite playing for perhaps the most PR-conscious team in the league (in a positive way), continued to blast Green for what he deemed a cheap shot, blathering witticisms such as, "God don't like ugly, you know what I mean?" Quick, find me Dianne Wiest's character (Helen Sinclair) from "Bullets Over Broadway": "Don't speak. DON'T speak!"
• On a perfectly sunny day at LP Field, at a game that began at noon, can someone please tell me why the stadium lights were on the whole time? Here I am scurrying around the house all week turning off every last bathroom and closet light, and I'd have to do that for about 13 years to offset the energy that was wasted at this single game – and in Al Gore's home state nonetheless.
• If Mike Shanahan had a Kurt Warner, would Jay Cutler be getting the Matt Leinart (pre-injury) treatment? Shanahan has to do something, or the Broncos could be headed for a serious Rocky Mountain low.
• Speaking of the mess that is the AFC West (a division now led by the 2-2 Raiders), how about those 10 rushing yards the Chiefs mustered in a 17-7 home defeat to the Jaguars? This is the same Jacksonville team that gave up 282 yards on the ground to the Titans in their season opener. Yet a K.C. attack with Larry Johnson went nowhere, and more than a few players are questioning the schemes and calls of offensive coordinator Mike Solari.
• I truly hope I didn't witness the final play of Falcons tackle Wayne Gandy's impressive 15-year career, but when the big man went down on Atlanta's second-to-last play with what appeared to be a severe knee injury, it was tough not to consider the possibility. As Gandy limped painfully through the locker room on crutches, Joe Horn, his former New Orleans Saints teammate, was visibly shaken. I've enjoyed Gandy's insight and intelligent opinions since his days with the Rams and Steelers and spent time with him in the days after Hurricane Katrina as he visited shelters in Texas. He's one of those wise, calm veterans that help form the fabric of a functional locker room, and if he's out for the season, or longer, the Falcons will feel his absence on and off the field. "That's my guy," Horn said of Gandy. "He's played under all kinds of situations and survived all type of adversity and stayed true. They don't 'make em like that dude anymore."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why Britney Spears determined it was a good idea to procreate.
2. The inevitable slogan on the back of the Oakland Raiders' media guide: "The Greatness of the Raiders Will Continue in Its Future." In whose future? The Greatness's? Or do the subjects in Al's Kingdom mean to say their future, yet no one has managed to clean up that grammatical atrocity for the past two decades or so?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Mike Nolan, from what numerous sources tell me, you have quite the ego, even by NFL coach/de facto GM standards. So what I'm about to say shouldn't put much of a dent in your considerable self-esteem: We know your offense stinks – on Sunday, for the fourth time in five games, the Niners failed to gain 200 total yards – but that's not all that is terribly wrong in San Francisco. You are also, how shall I say this gently? … COACHING LIKE A COMPLETE WUSS. After Dilfer flipped a pass to Frank Gore and the halfback rambled up the middle 19 yards to the Baltimore 37-yard line with just over four minutes to go and the Niners down by 2, you coached like it was first-and-goal and no time for the Ravens to come back: one-yard Gore run up the middle; short Dilfer incompletion to fullback Moran Norris; two-yard Gore run up the middle on third-and-9. On came Nedney for a 52-yard field goal attempt that, not unpredictably, he drilled wiiiiiiide right, halfway across the bay to San Lorenzo, Calif. Mike, I know you consider yourself a fan of 49ers lore, especially given that your father once coached the team, but let's fill you in on some more recent history: Each of your predecessors lost his job in part because he went conspicuously soft in high-profile games – George Seifert settling for a field goal on a Monday night game in Green Bay in '96 (the Niners lost in overtime); Steve Mariucci running out the first half at midfield while trailing big in a 2002 playoff defeat to Tampa Bay. Such is the legacy of the great Bill Walsh. You have to win and avoid any appearance of wimpiness, or the 49ers Faithful won't stand for it.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Excellent article about the 'Old Gangtas.' Too often the 'Old' word is thrown around for struggling veteran players, while a younger player like Bulger or Leinart are just going through a 'slump.' 'Old' ends some good careers, while 'slump' implies hope for future play. Look what (Jeff) Garcia (did) for the Eagles last year. Jerry Rice was an all-Pro at the dinosaur age of 40. 'Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.' "
That's what I tell myself every time I have to go head-up against the young studs of the sportswriting world, especially Charles Robinson and Jason King.
"Michael, I greatly enjoyed your article about the veteran QBs (Warner/Frerotte/Dilfer) who (started) this weekend. I am glad it was brought up again how ultimately stupid the Ravens organization was for letting Dilfer go and signing Elvis Grbac, who was less than stellar the following year. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? What I also remember about this scenario was the fact that when they showed Dilfer, Grbac and Brad Johnson's career stats (the Ravens were also trying to sign Johnson before he ended up with the Bucs) was that they were all three nearly identical. Since then they've tried (Chris) Redman, (Kyle) Boller and others along with an aging warrior in Steve McNair, but the leadership and success of this team has never been what it was when the presence of Dilfer was on this team. Frerotte was better than Charlie Batch during his stint with the Lions and he was let go as well. Grbac's stats in the EGOcentric department will always outweigh what he did on the football field. … Teams are always firing and letting go of talent in both coaching and player ranks, but rarely do we ever really see the result be something of the better for it. And this is supposed to be in an era where they want to 'win now?' which is even more ridiculous."
All I can say is, a bunch of key players from the Ravens' Super Bowl team would absolutely agree with you.
"Which of your statements do you think will look more ridiculous at season's end? 'It's Upset Week II in the NFL: The Chicago Bears will rise up and beat the Packers in Green Bay, with Brian Urlacher leading the way.' or 'I admit that No. 22 was a miscalculation, but remember, if Brett Favre suddenly reverts to his wildly inconsistent form of the previous several years, it is not impossible to imagine the Pack going 7-9 or worse. 'The Bears defensive players are playing more like kittens than Bears and their 'offense' is, well, offensive, but please, the Packers finishing at 7-9 or worse? Are you really getting paid for this drivel? The Packers have better coaching, offense, defense and special teams than the Bears. The Bears might have better cheerleaders. Maybe."
I don't know about the cheerleaders, but it sure was a relief to be right about one thing this week.
"You're kidding right? Is this April Fools' day? You picking the Bears over the Packers in Lambeau? If you lose, how about eating some crow? Or better yet, retire!"
Do crow and cheese taste good together?
"Bet your house on the Bears … how you likey homeless?"
West Palm Beach, Fla.
I enjoy my home. How you likey grammar?
"Is Matt Leinart dating Hope Solo?"
Hey, hey, that's not nice. Wait … would that be a bad thing?
San Jose, Calif.
You don't know me very well. Ask my Yahoo! teammates, or my former colleagues at SI or the Santa Rosa Press Democrat or the Daily Californian. I have plenty of flaws, but quitting is isn't one of them. It's the Cal in me.
"Is it just me, or can just about anyone run in Denver? That place is a system, and I don't think it matters if it's Travis Henry, Mike Bell, Selvin Young, my grandma … the place is heaven for backs. If Henry is gone in Ricky Williams-like fashion, in a couple weeks I don't think anyone will notice."
West Chester, Pa.
I can think of nine people who will. (Hint: All of them share a certain bond with the halfback I call 'King Henry IX.')
"Re: your article on my beloved Chargers. You suck but, damn, you are so freaking correct it makes me want to puke. The moment we fired Marty (Schottenheimer) I thought … "What the hell?" When they hired Norv, I only used curse words for an entire month, threw stuff around the house, and even thought about setting it ablaze. I called A.J. (Smith) and left him many messages which, of course, were never returned. Worse, all of my much-hated Raiders friends called me weekly to leave messages that were essentially, two minutes of laughter. We may still win the division but nothing will make what A.J. did acceptable on any level. And I won't even mention Donnie Edwards."
Huntington Beach, Calif.
You suck, too, but thanks.
"Hi, Michael, I've enjoyed your work for quite awhile now, and it looks like I'll be a Monday morning regular here on Yahoo from here on out. Quick question: Why the move from SI to Yahoo?"
There are many, many reasons for the move, but one of the main ones is the enlarged pool of emailers and the polite discourse that ensues.
"Are you kidding me with that picture? Are you trying to look like Euro-trash with those sunglasses that you're trying to pass off as prescription glasses? Give us all a break and tell the powers that be at Yahoo! to ditch that picture before anyone else laughs at you."
OK, Mr. Bates (or should I call you "Master"?), here's the deal: Back in my SI days, I had to institute a rule that anyone commenting on my appearance was required to include a photo of him/herself for my (and the readers') careful inspection. I'm sure you're a regular Vincent Chase, so send one along, and my prescription glasses and I will take a look.
"Ok, ok first thing I understand what Hope Solo did was out of line and classless but I wish I could have done the same thing. She by far was the best option they had and she was on fire and a brick wall. Anyone of us wish we could say that to all our bosses that they made a mistake and the best part be right, too. I hope the coach gets fired and I hope she gets asked back. That's the type of fire and will you want in a key player such as a goalie. (Plus I have seen no one mention that her name is awfully similar to the beloved Han Solo, I know he's not real but still) Second thing- 'Is there anybody who can overturn a coach's (U.S. Women's Soccer) decision to pull a player in a critical game? Tony Hammond West Dundee, Ill. Only one person: Chargers general manager A.J. Smith' Hahahaha hilarious Smith is punk and i have to say that at first didn't like you but you've changed my mind. Keep up the good work!"
Thanks, and may the force be with you.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Am I in a parallel universe, or are the California (Expletive) Golden Bears No. 1 in America? Cal! No. 1! Holy (expletive)!"
– Text Saturday night (before LSU's comeback) from KNBR-AM (San Francisco) morning host and UCLA alum/Trojan hater Brian Murphy, my former Santa Rosa Press Democrat runnin' mate.