GREEN BAY, Wis. – Nick Barnett exhaled deeply, and for a few seconds the anger appeared to vanish. By all rights Barnett, the NFL's best inside linebacker in 2007, should have been smiling Sunday evening. He had just helped the Green Bay Packers improve to 9-1 with a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field, keeping the league's unlikeliest Super Bowl contender tied with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC 10 days before their Thursday night showdown at Texas Stadium.
Now he was finishing his dinner at an Olive Garden a few miles down Oneida Street and preparing for a well-deserved power nap and celebratory night on the town.
First, however, Barnett would do what he always does after games: Sit alone in the miniature movie theater at his home alongside the Fox River in DePere and beat himself up more brutally than he does opposing ballcarriers. Cursing at the screen, slamming the remote on his knee, rewinding his DVR over and over again to watch particularly troubling plays, Barnett is a prickly perfectionist who never met a replay he didn't hate.
"I'm very critical of myself, to the point where by the time I'm done watching, I'm convinced I played the worst game of the season," Barnett explained as he finished the last of his shrimp. "It's a constant pursuit of excellence, which is a gift and a curse. Honestly, I'm just so critical. I'm never in a good mood, man."
This is especially true on days like Sunday, when Barnett's most notable play was the 15-yard personal foul penalty he drew for driving 44-year-old Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde well out of bounds late in the first half, and his team-high total of eight tackles (and one assist) was compiled in relatively uneventful fashion. But Barnett, a rangy, ferocious fifth-year player who on Sunday hit the 100-tackle plateau for the fifth consecutive season – he led the Packers in that unofficial stat each of his first three years before finishing second to teammate A.J. Hawk in '06 and is back atop the charts in '07 – ritualistically tears himself down after games, no matter how dominant his performance.
"He's the best linebacker in the game right now," cornerback Charles Woodson says of Barnett. "He goes 100 miles an hour 100 percent of the time. He's a fun guy to watch on film."
Uh, yeah – depending upon one's perspective. "Watching myself on film is painful," Barnett says. "I just feel like I'm supposed to make every play, and I always end up saying, 'I could've got there faster.'"
The cheesehead-sized chip on his shoulder has been stoked by years of perceived slights. Lightly recruited out of high school in Southern California, Barnett was headed for UNLV before Oregon State and then-coach Dennis Erickson emerged late in the game as his lone Pac-10 suitor. The 6-foot-2, 232-pounder has yet to make a Pro Bowl, toiling in the shadow of NFC North rival Brian Urlacher, who Barnett says won't acknowledge his presence (more on that later), and the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, among other high-profile middle linebackers.
But what really riles Barnett is the semi-fictional disrespect from opponents he manufactures every time he takes the field.
Growing up in Fontana, Calif., Barnett was always combative. "When he was eight or nine, he used to wear his kung fu outfit to bed," recalls Nick's older brother Dinde.
"Yep," Nick confirms. "I used to think I was Bruce Lee."
At A.B. Miller High School, Barnett would barge into the locker room before games and announce to his teammates that their opponents had slighted them, providing specific details of the trash-talk. Never mind that it was completely fabricated.
These days, Barnett simply tries to trick himself. "As soon as I wake up on Sunday," he says, "I'm thinking, 'It's gonna go down today.' Then I figure out a way to get myself mad."
On Sunday, Barnett began by text-messaging his friend Shamon Jamerson, typing, "I'm Achilles and Beowulf rolled into one." Jamerson, who knows how the game is the played, responded, "You ain't (expletive) until you go out there and show it." Barnett's reply: "Keep your eyes open today. Don't blink, or you might miss something."
In the locker room, Barnett's iPod serves as the musical catalog of choice; team officials bought a special adapter to hook it up to the internal sound system. On Sunday the selections ranged from Mystikal's "Here I Go" to Tupac's "Ambitionz Az A Ridah."
During pre-game warmups Barnett, as is his custom, stopped doing drills as the Panthers charged onto the field, glaring at his opponents as they passed and waiting for someone to initiate a verbal exchange. After striking up a conversation with former teammate Mike Wahle, Barnett got his wish. Referring to the fact that the game featured opposing siblings in Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins, Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker said, "It's all about big brother today."
"No big brother over here!" Barnett screamed, and the barking escalated.
Says Barnett: "Once they say something, it's on. I get all the guys into it. You've just got to play loose. Last year in San Francisco, I yelled at (veteran lineman) Larry Allen, 'It's going down today.' He didn't hear me right; it's amazing what stuff sounds like through a mouthpiece, I guess. He said, 'Who you calling 'bitch'? and it was on. I wasn't gonna back down and say, 'I didn't say that.' So I said, 'You, bitch.' I got the whole D-line involved."
What happens if the opponents won't engage?
"Then," Barnett answers, "I just reverse it. I say, 'No one wants to talk to me. They're disrespectful!' And at the time, I really am thinking that. I really make myself believe that they don’t think I can do this or that.'"
You can imagine how Barnett channels the icy treatment he says he gets from Urlacher, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year. "I've been here five years and played them twice a year, and he's never said a word to me after a game," Barnett says. "It's real weird. I've played London Fletcher, Donnie Edwards, even Ray Lewis – they've all come up and talked to me afterward. Maybe it's a Bears-Packers thing, but he's the veteran, he's been to the Pro Bowl, so I feel like it's on him to initiate things. But that's cool. It's not like I'm worried about it."
With Urlacher battling through back pain and the defending NFC champion Bears struggling, Barnett, who has two interceptions and a fumble recovery this season, has a chance to seize some of the glory he's been seeking these past few years. The Packers' overall defensive improvement, he says, has hurt his individual numbers – "Other guys are making plays before I can get there" – but as the team's profile rises, his prospects for earning that first Pro Bowl berth (he's first in the most recently tabulated fan vote) should brighten.
So, too, should his disposition – eventually, at least.
"I won't be in a good mood," he says, "until I'm in Hawaii."
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Remember all the crap New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan got when he stayed away from training camp, saying he was contemplating retirement? The move was widely portrayed as a de facto holdout, and the prevailing opinion was that Strahan, who turns 36 later this week, had overestimated his value. Well, guess what? He's still one of the best players in football, and he's still underpaid. Strahan was dominant in New York's 16-10 victory over the Detroit Lions Sunday, with his first three-sack game in nearly four years. (He's now fifth on the all-time list with 140½). Noting that Favre, another future Hall of Famer with whom he will always be linked (remember the controversial phantom sack with which Strahan set the NFL's single-season record in '01?), had another big game on Sunday, Strahan said via email, "I felt 25 today, so I guess the old dogs have found a temporary fountain of youth."
• Attention, highly drafted players who lose your starting job: If you want to know how to handle your demotion, take a look at the Arizona Cardinals' Antrel Rolle. Benched in training camp, the eighth overall pick of the '05 draft refrained from sulking, bit his lip and waited for his chance to make an impact. On Sunday, he led the Cardinals (5-5) to a 35-27 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that kept Arizona in the thick of the playoff race. Rolle had a pair of long interception returns for touchdown (for 55 and 54 yards) and a 71-yard game-clincher that lost its TD status because of a personal foul after the pick. Rolle had two career interceptions coming into the game. I have a feeling he'll make many more big plays before he's done.
• OK, I'm officially apologizing to Chester Taylor, whom I've been indirectly dogging all season while heaping praise upon Adrian Peterson. Taylor's a very good running back, too, as he showed Sunday in the Minnesota Vikings' 29-22 victory over the Oakland Raiders, with 202 combined rushing and receiving yards and three touchdowns. If the Vikings were tempted to rush Peterson back from his knee injury, this should be yet another piece of evidence to snap them back to reality.
• So here's how it works in today's NFL: "Hi, I'm Terrell Owens, and I just caught four touchdown passes in a single game. That's my career high, and it ties me with you, Randy Moss, for the NFL lead with 12. And by the way, Randy, you've never caught four in a game. Ha ha." And then, as Owens enjoys a post-game meal: "Hi, I'm Randy Moss. I just caught four touchdown passes … in the first half."
• Since we're on the subject, the New England Patriots put up 56 points in Buffalo, the highest total by a road team in the NFL since 1973. One snapshot: On fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 10, with 1:09 remaining in the third quarter of a game they led 42-10, the Pats blew off a field goal and threw a 3-yard pass to Moss, setting up touchdown No. 7. I'd say that seemed a little excessive, but that might make Bill Belichick throw a cup of soda to the ground in disgust the next time he sees me. Wait, he already did that, in Indy. Where did our love go? (And yes, Bill and all you proud Pats fans, I am laughing as I type this. Belichick and I have been through far too much to feud over such petty matters.) Anyway, NBC has to be questioning its decision to air two consecutive Pats games on Sunday night, with another blowout to come.
• Remember in that Pittsburgh Steelers upset of the Indianapolis Colts in the '05 divisional playoffs when, as Indy struggled to scramble back from a late deficit, Peyton Manning waved off the punt team sent in by coach Tony Dungy and converted a key fourth down? Well, I'm not sure which one of those guys made the actual decision to run a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 3 with two minutes remaining – it had reeked of the old try-to-draw-them-offsides ruse until the ball was actually snapped – but I like the boldness. The Colts are, simultaneously, the defending Super Bowl champs and clear underdogs in this year's race (as is everyone not coached by Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady). They can afford to take chances. This one worked out perfectly, with Manning lunging forward for the first down, then killing the clock with kneel-downs to set up Adam Vinatieri's 24-yard field goal with three seconds remaining.
• Welcome back, Andre Johnson – seeing you running free through the New Orleans Saints' secondary, I just remembered why I liked Matt Schaub and the Houston Texans so much at the start of the season. Considering they were without their marquee offensive player for seven games and play in what is by far the NFL's toughest division, the Texans should be proud to be 5-5.
• Still think Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney is a free-agent bust? I've got three sacks and a game-deciding strip of Rex Grossman that says he isn't. There's no way someone who works that hard and plays that passionately won't succeed over the long haul.
• I can see why Brian Billick and his Ravens are furious about the way the officials handled the last play of regulation on Sunday – first saying the Browns' Phil Dawson had missed a 51-yard field goal to tie the game, then saying (incorrectly) the play was reviewable, and ultimately conferencing and reversing the call – but the bottom line is, the refs got the call right. And kicking deep to Cleveland's fantastic return man, Joshua Cribbs, late in regulation and at the start of overtime was a regrettable philosophical approach. Bottom line: The Browns, at 6-4 (after Dawson's 33-yard game-winner in OT), remain a legitimate playoff contender; only the Packers' improbable success rivals Cleveland's in '07.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Trent Dilfer's numbers weren't very impressive in the San Francisco 49ers' 13-9 defeat to the Rams – 20-for-42, 231 yards, no TDs, two interceptions – but if you saw the game, you realize how much the 49ers' skill players killed him on this particular day. There were 10 drops, including three potential touchdowns (by Bryan Gilmore, Vernon Davis and Darrell Jackson, the latter two coming on back-to-back plays late in the game), and various other missed blocks and assignments (even by normally dependable halfback Frank Gore) that further detracted from what should have been a banner performance. Hey, it happens – especially to teams in the midst of eight-game losing streaks. Still, barring injury or a drastic development, expect to see Dilfer quarterbacking the Niners for the rest of the season, for the strained relationship between coach Mike Nolan and third-year QB Alex Smith may be irrevocably frayed. The Cliff's Notes version is that Smith feels betrayed because, while recovering from his separated right shoulder, he developed tendinitis in his forearm that Nolan publicly dismissed as a cause of the passer's struggles. Nolan and his offensive assistants believe that Smith is overstating an injury that other quarterbacks (including Brady) have played through, refusing to accept responsibility (and, by extension, pinning it on his teammates) and trying to dictate to the organization when he can play. Assuming Nolan doesn't get fired after this season, it's hard to imagine Smith being regarded as the unchallenged franchise quarterback heading into '08.
• By testing positive for performance enhancing drugs during his standout 2006 season, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman set himself up for increased scrutiny in '07 – including from within his own locker room. Some San Diego players are questioning whether "Lights Out" is the same player as he was before the positive test, and watching him get waxed by Jaguars halfback Maurice Jones-Drew on a third quarter touchdown pass in Jacksonville's 24-17 victory surely did nothing to dissuade them. "I don't see people doubling him or chipping to account for him this year," one Chargers player said of Merriman last week. "There's no question Shaun Phillips is our best pass rusher right now."
• That was an odd call by Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, benching Joey Harrington after he led Atlanta to consecutive victories and throwing Byron Leftwich back into the lineup. Judging by each quarterback's respective performance in the Falcons' 31-7 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, the switch was an ill-advised one. Realistically, it's likely that neither player will be Atlanta's starter in the first game of '08.
• Is Adam Vinatieri's plant foot injured more than he's letting on, or is he going through one of those weird mental funks that plague kickers, sometimes for prolonged periods? I hope the latter isn't the case, but even on Vinatieri's 24-yard game-winner Sunday, the ball was tailing left (as had both of the kicks he missed earlier against the Chiefs). This team has enough problems without having to stress out about the best clutch kicker of all time.
• Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Cedric Benson – yeah, they all have their issues, but right now the collapse of the Bears (4-6) has to be blamed largely on the defense. Over the previous two seasons, Chicago gave up 30 points or more in three games; it has already happened four times in '07, including Sunday in a 30-23 defeat at Seattle. Former Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, now San Diego's inside linebackers coach after being fired following the Super Bowl, should see his coaching stock rise as the Bears' defense falters in his absence. Then again, Rivera's stock should've been high enough after '06 to get him a promotion, not a demotion.
• Congratulations to Ted Ginn Jr. on his 87-yard punt return for touchdown, which matched the longest in Dolphins history. But only an 0-10 team could do what Miami did while trailing 17-7 and facing fourth-and-goal from the Philadelphia 1 with 6:45 remaining Sunday: go for it (the right call), pitch the ball to halfback Jesse Chatman and watch him get stopped for a 13-yard loss . That's exceptional.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
2. What possessed Panthers tight end Christian Fauria to perform his ludicrous touchdown celebration with 3:21 left in the third quarter and the Panthers trailing the Packers by 19 points. It was a bizarre sight. For one thing, Fauria seemed to be taunting the spectators in the Lambeau end zone, which was silly, because Green Bay fans are the league's classiest. And it looked like a rookie move, rather than something you'd see from a 35-year-old in his 13th season.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Mike Bellotti, you are the worst . Your star senior quarterback, Dennis Dixon, tears his ACL in a victory over Arizona State, and you do the following: Publicly play off the injury like it's no big deal … allow the kid to risk his lucrative NFL future by starting the next game against Arizona … fail, in the process, to adequately prepare your backup quarterback, Brady Leaf, for a game that has potential national title implications … and, after Dixon breaks down and Leaf comes in cold and loses, shamelessly try to avoid the criticism coming to you by saying you lied about the injury because the student athlete told you to? What the (expletive)? Are you saying this with a straight face? Do you know how foolish you sound? Is this the way a fine university with a terrific football program wants to be represented?
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Losing five out of nine games by 3 points, one of these games in OT and two on last-second field goals may not yet quantify this team as worst ever. Plus there are seven to go. Not saying they are not bad – plus they have tons of injuries – but this is not close to worst team ever. Back when the NFL was less competitive (1980s and '90s) there were horrible teams. Now there is a fine line between winning and losing because of the parity."
You may be right, and realistically, we'll never know who the actual worst team ever is. But if anyone goes 0-16, they get to be the team with the worst record ever. I'm hoping these Dolphins are not that team, either.
"I've got to get this out in the open. I am openly and shamelessly pulling for Miami to lose 'em all in 2007 and there is only one reason why: The punk brigade known as the '72 Dolphins. I don't believe in karma, but if the idea has any merit at all, the '72 Dolphins and their annual champaign-toasting orgy of narcissism warrants a cascade of karma all over that sorry franchise. The icing on the cake would be if the Patriots (who I despise and respect in near-equal measure) manage to sweep the league the same year the Dolphins go oh-fer."
Champaign- toasting orgy of narcissism? Quick, somebody book me a flight to Illinois.
"Who's got the better 420 career in Miami, Dan Marino with his 420 TDs or Ricky Williams with his Ricky Williams?"
Whoa. I have to think about that one … for like the next four hours.
"AP is most definitely a proper nickname for Adrian Peterson. 'All Day' is nice but Jamal Lewis can come at you 'all day.' AP standing for 'advanced placement' (it's a term in school for an advanced class such as AP US history) is a much better nickname, because AP is clearly ahead of the class."
I'm glad you feel that way. But I wasn't opening the subject up to debate. AP is not an acceptable nickname because (listen closely) Peterson's nickname is already AD. It was decided long before you or I got involved.
"Kudos on mentioning one-half of the 'Game of Shadows' team, Mark Fainaru-Wada. While it is outstanding that Mark is getting the spotlight by joining ESPN, every self- respecting baseball fan should pay homage to Mark for being part of the movement to finally tag Barry Bonds and label him for what he is – a cheater. If Barry had accepted his skills and played the game with the passion of a child (to quote Brandi Chastain from earlier in your column) rather than juicing up and affecting the arrogance of an arse, he might have retained the respect of the baseball world. Barry Bonds is a cheater just like Ben Johnson and all the other drug cheats in sports … and to hear one of my (former) idols, his godfather, Willie Mays, defend Bonds during the allegations over the past couple of years – it just makes me yearn to watch only Class A or AA minor league baseball, because most of those kids are too far from the show to become despicable like Bonds and his sycophants."
Say what you will about Bonds, but give him this: He did inspire the best song on the new Kanye West CD. Come to think of it, Fainaru-Wada would sound pretty fresh in a rap.
"As usual, your column is much ado about nothing. Can't you even have any real football analysis or are you Dr. Ruth for the NFL?"
If we're allowing shamelessly dated throwback references, here's mine: I'm Dr. J for NFL coverage. Now kindly excuse me, for I've gotta fly …
"First, love your stuff. You have replaced Sports Guy in my sports column diet. At my sports bar this weekend, wearing my (Brian) Piccolo jersey. Some guy, with that ridiculous 'it's a girlie in a sports bar' smile, asks me why Piccolo. I said, 'besides the fact that he was one of the most talented undrafted starters in NFL history? Every active player's jersey I've ever bought has landed the guy on the injured list.' (BTW, if Bri' comes back from the dead and pulls a hammie, I'm buying Green Bay gear.) Smile not faltering, he then suggests I get a (Joe0 Theismann jersey. 'Do you know who Joe Theismann is?' Seriously? Seriously. I'm in a non-trad throwback jersey and a tattered Bears cap. A little pissed at having my football knowledge questioned, I pointed out to him that my daughter's name is Payton. He asks, '(Peyton) Manning? Why – because you think he's cute?’ Again ‐ seriously? As a female football geek and diehard Bears fan, I'm tired. I've watched nearly every game since I was four and (Walter) Payton's rookie season. I go to sleep to the NFL Network Aug.-Feb. I know what '8 in the box' means. I know that when you're down two scores in the fourth, you don't run on 3rd-and-a-cab-ride, especially when you have no running game per se (though Ron Turner, it seems, does not). I know that (Brian) Urlacher has three more sacks this season than last (answer: 3). So, why, why do I constantly have to prove I know my stuff?"
Short answer: You're hanging with the wrong crowd. There are a lot of dudes out there who would appreciate (or even worship) you for possessing that kind of football knowledge, commitment and throwback street-cred. And you're funny. My advice to you is to start blogging heavily.
"Silver, can you do me a favor and check with one of your inside sources to see if Adam Vinatieri still has a house in Foxborough, Mass.? I'm starting to wonder if he still has allegiance to The Dark Lord. I do know that there is an 'idiot kicker' somewhere laughing over a Molson Ice. Keep up the good work my man, I always look forward to your column. Go Horse!"
Come to think of it, can some NFL team please sign Mike Vanderjagt? I miss that dude's mouth and his leg.
" 'Your diatribe Monday the 12th ('Guns over Ganja') was one of the best points I've seen you make. The NFL is like Bizarro World when it comes to this. Who wouldn't agree Tank's policy violation was much worse than Ricky's? Weed (arguably) never hurt anyone, but guns? It staggers the imagination how backwards this is.' Actually, lots of people die getting drugs into this country, so to say that smoking weed doesn't hurt anyone is about as laughable as the 'guns don't kill people …' quip. Both of those turds should be unemployed. Tank's offense is definitely worse than Ricky's, but how many second chances do you give one person? Ricky has failed what, five drug tests now? Enough is enough."
I hear you, but are you suggesting that anyone who smokes weed five times should be permanently banned from his/her profession? Because, for example, there could be an awfully severe shortage of ski-lift operators and bike messengers.
"Being an unemployed single mom at the moment, I would like to apply for the position of 'E-mail Spel Chekkur' at the low, low rate of one quarter for each misspelled word. I think that would be enough to allow us a comfortable living. References are available on request."
Why am I hearing that Paul McCartney song from "Jerry Maguire" in the background? I wish I could afford to hire you, but even at those rates we'd need a wheelbarrow a day to get you paid. Hang in there. John Edwards has your back.
"Aparentally, ownlee idiutz end peepel hoo mispell evryting rite too yew. Soh, eye thot eye'd giv eet ay goh. High, Meykel Silvar! Hoo dew ewe theenk weel wyn tha Sooper Ball? Aynd juust too compleet the ilootion thayt Eye'm en idiut, GOH PATZ."
That was spellbinding.
"Silver! You stupid (insert misspelled explicative)! It's so obvious that you are a Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Steelers, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Titans, Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings, Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Bucs, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks fan. How could the Sports Editor at Yahoo! let you drone on and on with column after column of such biased sports reporting? When are people going to get it? That the entire NFL is in suspended animation around what Michael Silver writes at Yahoo! Sports. You just ruined my weekend. Thanks a lot Silver. You rated my team too low and now I'm going to go home and kick my dog. Then I'm going to go over to my neighbor's house and kick his dog too. Is it possible for people to whine anymore about your columns? P.S. When exactly did everyone lose their freaking sense of humor? I'm guessing it was about the same time that Seinfeld went off the air."
Ah, yes – back in the Summer of George.
"I find it extremely difficult to believe the extent with which some people actually think that you care what the hell they think. Get real folks – it's football, not the U.N "
And if it were the U.N., people would be accusing me of being a Costa Rica fan.
"Let me start off by saying that I am a big fan of your commentary and that I find it both insightful and humorous. That being said, do you have any admissions connections at Cal? I am a high school senior that desperately wants to go Cal. I got a 2160 on the SATs (that would be a 1440 on the old ones) and my UC weighted GPA is about a 3.8. However, this is not enough to get into Cal. I would do anything to get into Cal, it is my dream school. Is there anything that can be done?"
San Carlos, Calif.
Uh, can you throw a football on the run, or at least evade large, fleet-footed young men in the pocket? And can you put up better fourth-quarter numbers than one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions? Let me know if the answers are affirmative, and I'll see what I can do.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"It's good to be lucky sometimes."
– Instant message from Kurt Warner on his Favre-like, left-handed pass (with torn elbow ligaments) to tight end Leonard Pope for 22 yards to set up a Cardinals touchdown.