Morning Rush: Game for the ages
TAMPA, Fla. – James Harrison stood at his locker Sunday night, his muscular back to a small group of reporters, looking dazed and amazed and so exhausted he might collapse. "Where's my chair?" the Pittsburgh Steelers' All-Pro linebacker said to no one in particular, sweat dripping from his clean-shaven head. "Where's my chair?"
Eventually a folding chair arrived and Harrison sat down, still processing his team's thrilling, chilling, 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The NFL defensive player of the year took several slow, deep breaths and tried to put into words what it felt like to win a second championship in four seasons – and to participate in the greatest Super Bowl of them all.
"Man, I'm so tired and emotionally drained right now, I don't know what to do," Harrison said. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
Speaking for the crowd of 70,774 at Raymond James Stadium – and the tens of millions watching on TV sets around the globe – I understand Harrison's sentiment. Laugh? Cry? I did both in the final stages of this ultra-dramatic championship clash, marveling at the way my spine felt as though someone was tickling it and giving thanks that, at XLIII years of age, I could still experience an epic game like an awestruck little boy.
And when it was over, having watched a pair of probable Hall of Fame quarterbacks (yes, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger was that brilliant in his second Super Bowl victory) trade signature moments, capped by one of the greatest touchdown catches in NFL history – oh, and preceded by Harrison's oh-no-he-didn't, 100-yard interception return for a first-half-ending score for the ages – I'd been reminded of just how great this sport can be.
Think about it: If you had a friend from another continent, another culture or another planet, and you wanted to show him/her/it why football was cool and gripping and transformative, could there have possibly been a better illustration than this three-hour, 38-minute masterpiece?
First you had the upstart Cardinals falling into a 10-0 hole against the favored Steelers, then fighting back in the second quarter on a 45-yard pass from ageless wonder Kurt Warner to recently vilified wideout Anquan Boldin and a terrific scoring strike to tight end Ben Patrick (his first touchdown all season). Following a Karlos Dansby interception, Arizona was poised to take the lead, and Warner drove the team to first-and-goal at the 1 with 18 seconds left in the half.
Warner, sensing an all-out blitz, dropped back and tried to hit a quick outside route to Boldin. Harrison, known for his pass-rushing excellence, took a step toward Warner before sensing an opportunity to make a game-changing play. "You've got to be willing to gamble now and then," he later explained.
Jackpot. Harrison, unseen by Warner until it was too late, was in perfect position to pick off the pass at the goal line, and he raced up the sideline as numerous Cardinals players angled in and hit the turf as if props in a video game. Harrison made one final thrust past Fitzgerald and through Arizona wideout Steve Breaston, landing just over the goal line with the clock already having struck zero to complete the longest play in Super Bowl history.
It was 17-7 Pittsburgh, and the majority of the fans in the stadium were waving their Terrible Towels and gnashing their terrible teeth and yelling "Bruuuccccccee" for halftime singer Bruce Springsteen. The Cardinals partisans, meanwhile, were thinking, Springsteen sucks. And so does life.
That feeling intensified (and grew to include the officials) late in the third quarter as the Steelers pushed the lead to 20-7 on an 8-minute, 39-second drive that included three personal-foul penalties on the Cardinals. The two teams traded punts, and it seemed a given that Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney would be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for a record sixth time.
Then Warner (31-for-43, 377 yards, three touchdowns) rediscovered record-setting wideout Larry Fitzgerald and got into a zone that few passers have ever matched on the grandest stage. Working mostly out of the shotgun and with a spread formation, Warner took over at his own 13-yard line with 11:30 remaining and picked apart the league's No. 1-ranked defense with uncanny precision.
If there was any remaining debate that Warner will someday be enshrined in Canton, the 37-year-old's fabulous fourth quarter ended it. As Steelers linebacker James Farrior said later, "All the great players played great today – and what more can you ask for?"
Fitzgerald, who hadn't even been thrown to until 1:49 remained in the first half, had caught just one pass for 12 yards when that drive began. He would finish with seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns – and a spot alongside the greatest there was, Jerry Rice, in the annals of best-ever postseasons by a wideout. That Fitzgerald would ultimately be upstaged by a receiver on the opposite sideline was another testament to this game's greatness.
On a resplendent eight-play drive, Warner went 8-for-8 for 87 yards, the final play a willowy toss to the right corner of the end zone that Fitzgerald somehow managed to gather despite tight coverage by cornerback Ike Taylor, an effort that required the use of each of his hands and his helmet while spinning and falling to the grass. When the quarterback, after a safety had cut the Pittsburgh lead to 20-16, led Fitzgerald over the middle on a gorgeous seam route that the wideout turned into a 64-yard breakaway score with 2:47 remaining, his legend was irrevocably cemented. At that point it was easy to envision, in the next couple of years, taking a leisurely drive from Scottsdale to St. Louis on the Kurt Warner Highway.
After giving futile chase on Fitzgerald's score, Harrison returned to the Steelers' sideline and stood alone, lost in his dark thoughts. "I felt like trash," he said. "Just like garbage."
Soon, he would feel as clean and shiny as the Super Bowl ring he and his teammates will be receiving in a few months. That's because Big Ben was about to become a Big-Time Baller of the first degree.
"It was what it was," Roethlisberger said of the dicey situation in which the Steelers found themselves. "You had to do it. There's no tomorrow. You can't stop. You can't just say, 'Oh well, we tried.' "
Standing in the huddle with his offensive teammates after taking over at his own 22, Roethlisberger was blunt and demanding. "It's now or never, guys," he told them. "You'll be remembered forever if you do this. All the film study, all the hard work, all the stuff that people talked bad about us, it will be for nothing if we don't do this. We have to go out and do it."
Then, after a holding penalty on guard Chris Kemoeatu, the task got even tougher: First-and-20 at the Pittsburgh 12. Roethlisberger (21-for-30, 256 yards, one touchdown) did his thing, buying time in the pocket with his deceptive mobility, using his strength and determination to avoid sacks while keeping his eyes downfield and zinging off-balance spirals to receivers in stride.
Three years ago, in the Steelers' 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger had a lousy statistical game and was visibly bummed out afterward. The only parallel on Sunday was that the quarterback was once again upstaged by one of his receivers – the XL MVP was Hines Ward, while Santonio Holmes (nine catches, 131 yards) took the honors this time.
Down 23-20, the Steelers were likely thinking field goal until Roethlisberger and Holmes connected with a short pass that the quick-cutting wideout turned into a 40-yard gain down to the Arizona 6. On second-and-goal Roethlisberger dropped back, slid right in the pocket and pumped three times while looking off his first two reads. He finally slipped a glorious spiral toward the right corner of the end zone, fearing it might be intercepted.
The ball was perfectly placed, floating over the outstretched hands of cornerback Ralph Brown as Holmes reached up to catch it with his fingers. Closing in from the middle, safety Aaron Francisco had a chance to make a play. Had this occurred before the '08 season, Francisco would have had to make sure he didn't force Holmes out of the end zone, but that rule was abolished last spring. All Francisco had to do was make sure that both of Holmes' feet didn't land in-bounds – but Holmes wouldn't let him.
"Tone" was pitch-perfect: Ball secured, toes down, successful face-first landing – complete bedlam.
There were 35 seconds to go, and though Warner got the ball to Pittsburgh's 44 with 15 seconds remaining, a sack and a strip by linebacker LaMarr Woodley finally brought this passion play to an emotional end.
As Harrison sat in his chair processing it all, he was asked to describe his feelings about the game – and the game of football as a whole.
"Oh my, you probably love it if you're in this locker room right now," he said. "If you're in the other one, you probably hate it."
That's the way it normally goes, and that's the way you might have thought the Cardinals would have reacted. But given all they had accomplished this season, from winning their first division title in 35 years to playing for their first NFL title since 1947, the players were dealing with some complex feelings as they packed up their gear and headed off into an uncertain future.
Much of it hinges on what Warner decides to do. Will he test free agency and listen to offers from other teams? Will he decide to call it a career? On Sunday, after breaking Joe Montana's record for career passing yards in Super Bowl play (he owns the top three single-game performances in Super Bowl history), Warner definitely silenced the doubters who had viewed him as a washed-up flash-in-the-pan during his post-Rams dark period.
Honored as the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year before the game, Warner kept his poise afterward. He has appeared in three Super Bowls, each of which has featured dramatic climaxes that weren't settled until the final seconds. Yet even though he has lost two of those games and surely felt helpless watching Roethlisberger steal his glory on Sunday, Warner stayed classy during a long postgame interview session.
"I have to give credit to the Steelers and their tremendous drive at the end," he said. "That is what championship teams are all about. I want to enjoy what we accomplished as a football team. I want to enjoy this great game we just played in.
"I'm sitting here thinking about how great a season this was, how nobody expected us to be here, how nobody expected me to be here. We played a team nobody expected us to beat and had a chance to beat them in the last two minutes. I mean, we took the best team in the league down to the wire. It doesn't get any better than that."
The interview session ended, and I walked with Warner toward the Arizona locker room. He was nominally the losing quarterback, but even he could appreciate a game that, in the end, will make everyone who got to experience it feel like a winner.
Before he disappeared into the night, I asked him a question that made him stop for a moment: Do you love football right now, or do you hate it?
He gave a strange look, like he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Finally, he managed a slight smile.
"I still love this game," he said.
And once again, for about the 15th time on a magical Super Sunday, I felt the tickling sensation in my spine and a flashback to childhood awe and a conviction that history will be kind to everyone who made this Super Bowl the best that has ever been.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Wassup, Holmes? Well, Disney World, for starters. Just as last year's Super Bowl hero, Plaxico Burress, was the guy who'd made the boldest statements in the days leading up to the event, this year's MVP winner did some pregame straight-talking as well. On media day Holmes revealed to the Miami Herald's Jeff Darlington that he had dealt drugs when he was 10 years old in Belle Glade, Fla. What Holmes accomplished on Sunday, outshining some of the NFL's best wideouts (teammate Ward and Cardinals Pro Bowlers Fitzgerald and Boldin) while making a game-winning catch that rivaled Dwight Clark's in the 1981 NFC championship game, was a great story in its own right. Now we have a better understanding of how many obstacles he had to overcome to get here in the first place, and that makes the story even more compelling.
• It is believed that Super Bowl national anthems are pre-recorded and lip-synched, but even if that's the case, Jennifer Hudson hit a home run on Sunday. In fact, she didn't just homer, she hit a bomb that went out of the park and kept rolling and rolling and has yet to be found. Everyone talks about Whitney Houston's anthem in the same city before Super Bowl XXV during the Gulf War in January 1991, but I'm saying Hudson's was even better. Given that it was her first public appearance since her mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew were murdered in October, I can't even imagine how much emotion went into the performance, whether it took place in real-time or at some earlier juncture. Bottom line: Hudson has a powerful voice and delivered a transcendent "Star-Spangled Banner," which happens about one percent of the time the tune is publicly sung.
• Speaking of tragedies, I still can't come to a big NFL event without thinking about Derrick Thomas, the former Chiefs linebacker whom I frequently had the pleasure of hanging with during his accomplished career. Nine years ago Thomas was involved in a car accident on an icy Kansas City freeway that killed his friend Mike Tellis and left him paralyzed from the chest down. He died 16 days later from a pulmonary embolism, and I'm one of the many people in the NFL community who has missed him ever since. On Saturday, it was announced that Thomas will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame this summer – a pleasant surprise given how many strong candidates there were in this batch of finalists. The writers who make up the Hall of Fame Selection Committee had a brutal job this year, and they spent seven grueling hours debating the merits of people like Cris Carter, Shannon Sharpe and Paul Tagliabue who will eventually get in but didn't make it through this time. In the end, they came up with a great class: Thomas; fellow players Bob Hayes, Rod Woodson, Bruce Smith and Randall McDaniel; and Bills owner Ralph Wilson. A celebration is in order, and I just wish DT were here to be the life of the party.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Given that Mike Tomlin just became the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl – and, from everything I can tell, is a guy who's a pleasure to cover – it's a bit awkward for me to criticize him on the morning after his terrific triumph. Still, here I go: Tomlin's decision to have Jeff Reed kick an 18-yard field goal on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line on the game's first drive really surprised me. The Cardinals' defensive front isn't the league's most physically imposing, and the Steelers have a big, strong quarterback capable of running an effective sneak. And even if the play had failed, the Cards would've been pinned inches from their own end zone with a loud Steelers-dominated crowd at their backs. Besides, going for it would have set a tone: We're going after it, and we're not afraid to fail. Obviously, it all worked out in the end for Tomlin, so feel free to ignore everything you just read. That said, I'm calling b.s. on the assertion by some of Tomlin's players that, had Roethlisberger's controversial touchdown pass to Holmes in the final minute of the Steelers' 13-9 victory over the Ravens in December not been overturned by a replay review, the coach was set to go for it on fourth-and-inches. Sure he was.
• First, a disclaimer: I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and I've seen him many times in concert. An acoustic guitar bearing his signature sits in my living room. I was excited to see him play at halftime, and I made a point of leaving the press box and going to a place in the stands where the acoustics would be ideal. The sound quality was good, but not great – about on par with the Stones' halftime effort in Detroit three years ago, a little less resonant than recent headliners Paul McCartney and Prince, and nothing compared to the gold standard for Super Bowl gigs, U2 in New Orleans in '02. As for Sunday's performance, The Boss' four-song set definitely had its moments, and it's very tough to complain about a "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" opener followed by "Born to Run." Then came "Working on a Dream," the title track of the new album – well, OK, that's understandable. But "Glory Days"? Complete with altered lyrics that swapped baseball for football, after Bruce had said at a press conference Thursday he knew nothing about the sport? I wasn't feeling it, especially given how many truly outstanding songs the band has in its repertoire. Another major complaint: In an effort to squeeze everything into the 12-minute set, Springsteen cut at least one verse out of every song. That's regrettable – I'd have rather had him play only three songs ("Glory Days" could've been dropped for sure) but keep the integrity of their lyrics intact. Here's an example of a line from "Born to Run" we didn't get to hear: Will you walk with me out on the wire?/Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider/But I gotta know how it feels/I want to know if love is wild/girl I want to know if love is real. Remember when Salman Rushdie's "The Satantic Verses" caused such an uproar? Welcome, two decades later, to "The Banished Verses: The Sequel."
• Because I did a book with Olympic swimming standout Natalie Coughlin, I have a semi-decent grasp of the swimming world – and a pronounced appreciation for the greatness of Michael Phelps. I got to meet the 14-time gold medalist after that aforementioned Steelers-Ravens game in Baltimore, and I can totally appreciate how a guy who has spent much of his life adhering to his coach's rigid training regimen might want to step out and rebel a little. All of this is a roundabout way of expressing my hope that you'll cut him some slack for the photograph that surfaced Sunday of Phelps holding a bong, an embarrassment that reportedly caused him to leave Tampa and abandon his plan to attend Sunday's game. As far as the possible drug suspension such an association might theoretically trigger, I direct you to the classic interview of former Olympic swimming great John Naber on "Da Ali G. Show": Asserting that recreational drugs would hamper one's performance in the water, Sacha Baron Cohen's character gets Naber to agree competitive swimmers caught using them should be given a head start. Brilliant.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The spacetime continuum.
2. The perpetually maddening inanity of Super Bowl logistics. Look, I realize that there are challenges involving the transport of thousands of media members, NFL officials and other game personnel – and that each group has needs that must be attended to upon arrival at the stadium. Yet year after year, I'm amazed by how utterly unprepared certain people hired by the league are to perform their assigned tasks. Exhibit A: The shuttle drivers from the media center to the stadium. On Sunday, for the third time during the last five Super Bowls, my particular bus driver got hopelessly lost on the way to the stadium. In '05, we had an eight-block trip to Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium that somehow took over an hour. In Arizona last year, I expected our wayward driver to end up at the Grand Canyon before he got it together, and we ended up getting let off a couple of blocks from University of Phoenix Stadium and walking the rest of the way. On Sunday it took the intervention of Y! Sports editor Jonathan Baum – using the GPS on his PDA – to get the confused driver back on track after several wrong turns. Baum spent much of the anxiety dream squatting next to the driver and directing his every move. It worked out; we made it. And of course there are bigger problems in the world. Still, it drives me crazy.
Imagine: you are hired to drive a shuttle to the Super Bowl. Your sole job is to drive from Point A to Point B, and back. Wouldn't it stand to reason that, a couple of days before the game, the NFL might have you do a dry run to the stadium using the preferred route? How about using GPS technology to guide the drivers? Yo, NFL – it shouldn't be that hard. And the stadium security guy who screamed at me and other reporters who were confused by an unexpected diversion of the postgame route from the press box to the locker rooms could probably have imparted the message a bit less harshly. As for the decision by the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to close down room service 15 minutes early (at 12:45 a.m. Monday), shutting me out as I arrived for this all-night writing session – well, shouldn't the main media hotel at a Super Bowl city be a bit better equipped to handle the needs of its clientele? Again, the world isn't ending because of any of this, but it has been a long season. I need to get on an airplane, get home, kiss my wife and kids and stare at the walls for a while, and bliss shall return.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
First, an apology: Seahawks fans, I know I've been telling you to get over the calls that went against you in Super Bowl XL, but the flurry of flags Sunday night brought it all back, and now I once again feel your pain. Granted, many of the penalties against the Cardinals were deserved, and ultimately I don't think the officiating cost either Arizona or Seattle a Super Bowl victory. Yet after Sunday, I can totally see how an objective observer would wonder whether the Steelers have some cosmic, unconscious hold on the hearts and minds of the zebras. Some examples: After Roethlisberger threw an incompletion on first-and-10 from the 50 midway through the third quarter, he was pushed in the back by Dansby, whose momentum appeared to carry him into the quarterback. The refs called a personal foul. Later that drive, on third-and-goal from the Arizona 9, Big Ben was about to get sacked and chucked the ball toward nobody in what seemed like a logical time for an intentional-grounding call. The officials didn't flag him, ruling that he was outside the pocket – it looked pretty borderline to me. On the next play, Jeff Reed's 27-yard field goal attempt, Adrian Wilson unintentionally ran into the holder, Mitch Berger, and a personal foul was called. It may have been legitimate, but things had become so one-sided that from that point on reporters in my section of the press box started conjuring up sarcastic fouls every time the Cards made a play: The defender threw the ballcarrier to the ground, resulting in a 15-yard penalty … Then, midway through the fourth quarter, on second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 4, Warner threw an underneath pass to halfback Tim Hightower and got absolutely clocked by Harrison. The hit was far more egregious than Dansby's push of Roethlisberger earlier, but no flag was thrown. Awful. Finally, after Holmes' game-winning touchdown catch, his celebration – a LeBron James powder-throwing tribute – seemed to violate the rule against using the football as a prop, which could have resulted in a 15-yard penalty that would've forced Pittsburgh to kick off from its own 15. I'm not suggesting there was a conspiracy in Pittsburgh's favor. I do believe, however, that this supposed all-star cast of officials had Ed Hochuli Disease: a tendency to make the game more about them than necessary. There were 11 penalties on the Cards for 106 yards, and seven for 56 on the Steelers.
Now here's the real diatribe: On the penultimate play of the game, after Warner was hit by Woodley while seemingly trying to throw a pass, the play was ruled a fumble, recovered by Woodley – and the officials acted like they had a table waiting at Mons Venus and needed to get there by 11. For all I know, the play would not have been overturned, and perhaps the replay official was able to determine that conclusively in a very short period. But even if it were only for the sake of appearances, how could the officials not stop the game and go through the process of conducting a formal review? I mean, this is the league that brought you the Tuck Rule, a play whose reversal at the time of the replay review seemed utterly incomprehensible, until Walt Coleman informed us how little we knew about football. Speaking of which, maybe Warner tucked the ball at some point during the play in question; or, perhaps, a conclusive case could be made that his arm was going forward. Or maybe not, but at least slow it down and take a few good looks at the replay. Because, you know, it's only the most important game of the season. Sure, only five seconds remained, but had there been a reversal, the ball would've moved from the Pittsburgh 44 to the 29, because a personal foul had been called on Woodley for taunting after the play. Hmmm, let's see, Warner throwing up top to Fitzgerald from about his own 35? I'd say there's a little bit better chance of completing that than your typical Hail Mary. Again, it's quite possible that the fumble would've been upheld on replay, and all of this would then become moot. I'm just stunned that the officials didn't even bother to hash it out.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"No puppy! Elijah is crying"
– Text Sunday night from Brenda Warner, referring to her husband's supposed promise to get a puppy if he won the Super Bowl – and their five-year-old son's reaction to the outcome.
"Just saw you big pimp'n with Brenda. You are a huge star!"
– Text Sunday from ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who has mastered the art of sarcasm, after seeing me sitting with Kurt Warner's wife in Section 113 on NBC's pregame show.
"That was me! I saw u!"
– Text Thursday from Mrs. Warner, jokingly responding to the news that I had seen a naked model with body paint featuring her husband's "jersey" and uniform number at the previous night's Moves Magazine party.
"Wow – that's impressive. Love the way you complemented your Vuarnets with the dress up tee shirt. You spared no expense to get your [expletive] right! … Is Jay Glazer Malcolm's son?"
– Email Tuesday from Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, my old writing (and cateye-sunglass-wearing) partner at the Palisades High School Tideline, commenting on my groundbreaking fashion choices for an NFL Network appearance at Super Bowl media day.