When it comes to predictions, there are some calls that are just too easy to make. For instance, when seeking perspective and intelligence in an NFL locker room, the stalls housing the offensive linemen and defensive backs are the obvious destinations.
Looking for the divas, the problem children or the plain weird? Cruise on over to the wide receivers' quarters, and you'll almost certainly hit pay dirt.
Boldin, perhaps the league's most under-hyped star, is an Arizona Cardinals wideout who plays football with the subtlety of the thorns on a cactus. If you watch closely, you'll see a guy who battles for every ball, every yard and gets up screaming for more.
At the line of scrimmage, the fiercely competitive Boldin glares at opposing defensive backs as though they've just graffiti-sprayed his living room, then pushes his way into the open field and looks for the football. When it comes, the fifth-year receiver usually catches it and then inflicts further damage on whoever tries to tackle him, sometimes popping up and screaming, "I'm a grown-ass man!" at play's end.
He's the kind of guy I wish I could watch in the biggest of games. But when it comes to the playoffs, Boldin has yet to make an appearance – a consequence of having spent his career with a franchise that flails with the worst of them. The Cardinals have just one postseason appearance since 1983 and haven't had a winning season since 1998, when they followed up a 9-7 campaign by scoring their lone playoff victory since moving to Arizona.
OK, here's a prediction that's not so obvious: In January, casual football fans are going to discover Boldin the way they once got introduced to Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Hines Ward, the player whose on-field playing style and temperament is most similar to his. That's because Ward's former offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, is now the rookie head coach of the Cardinals, a team that has been on the verge of a breakthrough for the past two seasons.
Take it from me – I picked them to win the NFC West in 2005 and again in '06. Oops. Each time Arizona went 5-11 and made me look foolish. Now, like a flummoxed hitter with an 0-2 count and Roger Clemens on the mound, I'm ready to go down swinging.
This time, the Cardinals really will be division champs, and Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the team's other star wideout, are going to lead the way. The firing of Denny Green will give Fitzgerald a healthy jolt to the comfort zone that makes him even more dangerous to opposing defenses. Assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm will prod an underachieving offensive line into a serviceable unit that protects cool, composed second-year quarterback Matt Leinart and clears holes for revived running back Edgerrin James.
Defensively, the Cardinals haven't shown much in the preseason, but playmakers like All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive end Darnell Dockett will help the unit be respectable once the real games begin. Keep an eye on backup safety Aaron Francisco, a big hitter whom one member of the Cardinals front office describes as a "poor man's John Lynch." That sounds pretty rich to me.
The key to it all is Whisenhunt, a bold play-caller whose shrewd work as Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl two seasons ago. He's a strong leader who doesn't feel a need to yell and flaunt his power to get his message across, and the young, eager Cardinals should be highly responsive. I see Whisenhunt as this year's version of Sean Payton, who instantly transformed the struggling New Orleans Saints into championship contenders last year.
Even last season under Green, whose greatest downfall was loyalty to some substandard assistants, there were glimpses of possibility. The Cardinals went 4-2 in their division, sweeping the San Francisco 49ers and splitting with the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams, the best mark among NFC West teams.
Quietly, with Seattle falling off since its Super Bowl campaign two years ago, the Rams retooling on the fly and the 49ers showing signs of progress, this has become perhaps the league's most intriguing division. Any of these four teams could finish anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6 without it being much of a surprise.
When teams are that closely matched, play-calling and studs at the skill positions can go a long, long way. I see Arizona simply outscoring many of its foes – and Boldin blasting his way into the end zone in a game that really matters, telling everyone on the field that he's indeed how grown up.
Since I clearly know everything that will go down before it actually occurs, here's who else will come up big in the 2007 regular season:
• Other NFC Division winners: Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas
• NFC Wild Cards: Washington, Philadelphia
• AFC Division winners: San Diego, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New England
• AFC Wild Cards: Denver, Tennessee
• Super Bowl: New England over New Orleans
• Offensive Rookie of the Year: Adrian Peterson
• Defensive Rookie of the Year: LaRon Landry
• Coach of the Year: Joe Gibbs
• Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees
STORY OF MY LIFE Among the 72,516 people at California Memorial Stadium Saturday evening were the five who've brought me the greatest pleasure over the past five years: wife, three kids, Lord Jeff Tedford. OK, so maybe I'm exaggerating; Tedford's clearly in a class by himself. (And yes, honey, that was a joke.) Some very quick shout-outs in the wake of the Bears' 45-31 victory: DeSean is DeShiznit … Forsett, better than Forsexx … Syd'Quan Thompson, way to show up – and shine on you crazy diamond … Freshman Jahvid Best, a sprinter and a runner, shaking off a big hit and showing he'll soon live up to his surname … Zack Follett from the blind side, and Worrell Williams with the one-handed scoop-up in stride to the house. Could it have started any better? … Finally, hang tough, Xavier Mitchell. It is so good to hear that you are up and about after that scary scene in the final minutes.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY…
• People ripping Tiki Barber for taking a shot at former New York Giants teammate Eli Manning are missing the point. Barber's primary concern now isn't loyalty or getting along with the guys; it's making it in his new career as a TV commentator and proving he's not just a bland ex-jock who won't call it like he sees it. As with fellow NBC analyst Jerome Bettis, who the previous year ticked-off his ex-coach by saying (accurately, it turned out) he thought '06 would be Cowher's final season, Barber consciously chose to hit hard early and establish his legitimacy. Don't read anything more into it than that.
• Chris Cooley, sporting the short-shorts and, now, the fat contract extension – I want to party with you, "Johnny White Guy."
• New England Patriots star cornerback Asante Samuel got what every NFL veteran (yeah, you too, Michael Strahan) essentially wants: To skip training camp, report just before the start of the regular season and immediately start collecting the big checks. And Samuel somehow got the Pats to agree, assuming he hits some reasonably easy to reach incentives, not to franchise him again after this season. If he has another big year, the Pats' front office will have helped facilitate his success by finding a way to make him happy in '07 without a long-term deal.
…YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• So Bill Parcells, while under contract as the Dallas Cowboys' coach, reportedly tried to throw his name into the ring for the Giants' GM job and, when word of that leaked, lied about having done so? Shocking. Now, with the Tuna having landed at ESPN, be sure to take everything he says on "Sunday NFL Countdown" as gospel and to applaud him for his candor.
• Similarly, if you think Cowher definitely won't return to coaching in 2008 because he said so in a CBS production meeting, you probably also believe that Star Jones slimmed down on the Subway diet.
• After watching a TiVod telecast of the Cal-Tennessee game, I realize now the UC administration built that fence around the "tree people" to protect them from Brent Musburger.
• Rough weekend in the wild, wild west for Tennesseeans: Just ask this Mrs. America contestant.
• So some Las Vegas sports books will now take bets on how many fantasy points an NFL player will produce? Wonderful! The potential for fixing just got that much greater.
• Pats safety Rodney Harrison, suspended for the season's first four games after admitting to having taken Human Growth Hormone, is a stand-up guy, and I applaud him for not trying (as so many others do) to play it off as some sort of accident. But when Harrison attempted to rationalize the cheating by saying he wasn't seeking a competitive advantage because he merely wanted to accelerate "the healing process of injuries I sustained while playing football," that was just silly. Yo, Rodney: Recovering more quickly is the major reason athletes take performance-enhancers.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1) That speech by Miss Teen South Carolina.
2) How the coach of that team from the other Carolina, Appalachian State's Jerry Moore, could make one of the most brain-dead time-management moves in recent memory and get away with it. (Look, I realize the Mountaineers' 34-32 victory over Michigan is one of the feel-good upsets of all time, a college football counterpart to Chaminade over Ralph Sampson's Virginia team a quarter-century ago. And watching safety Corey Lynch clinch the victory by bursting through the Michigan line to block a 37-yard field goal attempt on the final play was thrilling. But how could Moore ever have let it get to that point? Trailing by one with a first-and-goal on the Michigan 5-yard line and 30 seconds remaining, Moore obviously should have called for a pair of kneel-down plays to burn the last Michigan timeout and set up a field goal attempt on the final play. Instead, he immediately sent kicker Julian Rauch onto the field for the go-ahead score, leaving the Wolverines with enough time for the long completion that put them into field-goal range. Lloyd Carr's probably going to get fired because of this defeat. Moore, meanwhile, should be very thankful that Lynch bailed him out.)
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
This one comes courtesy of Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley, in reference to the column I wrote recently on the danger of training camp practices in extreme heat: "I saw this f---- Gatorade commercial, bro, talking about 'it's from stadium stairs at 5 in the morning … 'it's from suicides at basketball practice … and it's from two-a-days that are hot enough to boil an egg on your forehead.' Well, what about the families whose kids died because their kids were pressed into two-a-days and died because of the heat? What's Gatorade saying, then … that that's a good deal? That's what they're promoting? Yeah, way to go, Gatorade."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"You're forgetting one important component of a (Larry) Bird/Magic (Johnson) comparison for (Vince) Young/(Matt) Leinart: They need to play each other some to develop a rivalry. (Those) Celtics and Lakers met twice a year and (three) times in the NBA Finals. … Young is in the AFC, Leinart in the NFC. They'll play each other once every four years (not including preseason which won't matter). And here's a prediction: They will never meet in the Super Bowl. The public won't care because there will be no rivalry. End of … comparison."
I agree – they'd need to meet in the Super Bowl for the comparison to start taking hold. And I predict that, at some point, they will.
"Puleeze, Young and Leinart. Must you get your column ideas from an agent hyping? What a maroon. Doubt either team will make the playoffs and Young will pop a knee most likely running in his girlish style. And Matt, well, he just wants a good haircut."
Hey, that's totally unfair. I'm much more of a deep blue than a maroon.
"The Young-Leinart bit is the most feel-good sports rivalry since (Sammy) Sosa and (Mark) McGwire belted home runs into our hearts."
Thief River Falls, Minn.
Yikes. For Young and Leinart's sake, I hope theirs ages better.
"Nick Lachey sucks … Young Buck sucks … and you sir, you suck."
Oh well. Thanks for calling me "sir."
"Your Cal homerism continues! Unfortunately the only bowl Cal fans will see is the toilet variety right after Tennessee smacks them. I guess Cal will be playing in some goofy named bowl."
Oops, Giuseppe, sorry – I meant to run this on Friday. My apologies, and I hope running it in today's column makes it up to you.
"You know, your column really sucks – especially the one letting us know that we are all hypocrites for condemning Michael Vick. But now that I have just watched you give your uneducated, unsophisticated opinion in a video format, I actually feel sorry for you that you have down syndrome and can't put two logical sentences together. Do us all a favor – retire from giving your dumbass opinion on anything related to sports."
I think you have downer syndrome.
"Point of clarification: One of your readers called you a ‘bunghole loser'? This is particularly perplexing to read on a Friday. Does this mean your bunghole is lost and in need of finding? If so, are you going to rethink your position about being more comfortable in the Minneapolis airport stalls than over the middle with the Ravens D in a playoff game? Or was that necessary editing for what the unknown reader really said?"
To be honest, my goal is to remain out of airport bathroom stalls (and, for that matter, airplane bathroom stalls, at all cost, regardless of anatomical deficiencies.
"I am not gay … but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night."
Senator Larry Craig
I'll bet it was a Holiday Inn Express.
"How did you allow Dolfan say ‘Ronnie Brown tear up the Bucs defense'? When is 18 yards on 6 carries tearing it up on the same night Earnest Graham went 34 on 9 carries? You either need a run longer than 8 yards or at least average greater than 5 yards in the preseason to be tearing it up. And, would you rather have Alberta or Japan in Risk?"
To answer your second question, I would have to go back in time, to my freshman year in college, and ask the brainiacs on my dorm floor who played the game 24/7. To answer your first question, I would have to care about preseason football.
"That you can simultaneously dismiss people with grammatical barbs the size of Kamchatka, reference Fabien Barthez and Risk, discuss the unprecedented ‘awesomeness' of Cal 's rugby team, and inform the entire internet that your balls are blushing is a testament to whatever it is you were birthed from. I hesitate to give your parents credit because such a unique combination of wit, eloquence, and pop culture knowledge has only occurred twice before as far as I know: Abraham Lincoln and Bob Hope."
Either you're being sarcastic, or you are about to get a serious beat-down from the rightfully offended ghost of Honest Abe. And either way, thank you.
"Are you serious, did you really print this artical. This is the dumbest thing i have ever heard. You could compare any of the quarterbacks in the NFL like this. Whats going to happen when Linhart falls on his face in Arizona , and Young is always hurt because he is still trying to prove that a quarterback can run the football. Come on print some stuff that is worth reading."
Salt Lake City, Utah
I'm tempted to say that this was a very articalate email, but some might think that wouldn't be worth reading.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/PHONE MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Things happen and become what they are."
Linebacker Dhani Jones, after being waived by the New Orleans Saints