IRVING, Texas – If 2006 will be remembered as the season in which Peyton Manning became Tom Brady, it's now clear that 2007 is destined to be known as the year when Brady morphed into Manning, minus the grandiose hand signals and apparent desire to be in every single commercial shown on network television.
Or did you miss the latest gaudy offering from Touchdown Tommy, a 31-for-46, 388-yard, career-high-five-TD flexing of his passing arm that powered the New England Patriots to a 48-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys?
In case you blew off the latest falsely billed Game of the Century, here's all you need to know about this lopsided battle of teams that were 5-0 coming in and who could meet again in Super Bowl XLII: The NFC still blows, and the Pats and idle Indianapolis Colts (5-0) remain in a stratosphere of their own while the rest of their flawed competitors duke it out for power-rankings love.
Oh, one more thing: Brady, thanks to a startling change in organizational philosophy, has become a fantasy darling in more than just the gals-night-out-talking-smack-at-the-bar sense.
Have I mentioned that they might as well start engraving his first league MVP trophy?
In his eighth season, having already stamped himself as the greatest winner of his generation, Brady is taking aim at a fourth Super Bowl title with a support system he's never before possessed. Just as Bruce Springsteen kicked his brilliance to another level after transitioning from Jersey shore bar-darlings Child to the E Street Band, Brady is showing how sweetly he can jam with receivers befitting his otherworldly skill set.
Though Brady is too diplomatic to put it in these terms, he finally has what he has always wanted: big-time receivers whose physical abilities allow Brady an abundant set of options when attacking opposing defenses. For years I've heard his friends and family members say, in essence: Look at what Tommy does with average receivers, compared to what others (i.e. Manning) accomplish with more talented and dependable targets.
This sentiment reached a crescendo in the summer of '06 after Brady, over the offseason, was dispossessed of every wideout but Troy Brown, and top receiver Deion Branch was locked in a nasty holdout over the summer that eventually led to his departure.
"Can you imagine if Peyton lost Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley, and then Marvin Harrison held out and they wouldn't pay him?" one person close to Brady asked me. "He'd throw a fit, understandably. The Patriots are asking a lot of (Brady)."
When I visited Brady at the start of training camp last year, he told me he was angry that the team hadn't stepped up to meet Branch's contract demands.
Asked point blank whether he dreamed of having an A-list receiver in his life, Brady indicated that Branch was in fact that guy, saying, "Deion is the most important player on our offense. When I look at the elite receivers in the game, he is second to nobody. He doesn't get a lot of the credit, because we do spread the ball around here, and he doesn't feel a need to promote himself like so many guys at that position. But he is that good."
I didn't really believe him – to me, the over-the-top praise of Branch was his way of putting pressure on management to cough up some cash and get the receiver into camp. It became a moot point after negotiations collapsed and the team traded Branch to Seattle in September. That left Brady to play the season with a ragged group of wideouts that included journeymen Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney, clueless rookie Chad Jackson and undisciplined Raiders castoff Doug Gabriel.
Privately, Brady seethed at some of his receivers' shoddy routes and blown assignments, but he was good enough to make up for most of their inadequacies, pulling out a dramatic divisional-round playoff victory over the top-seeded Chargers in San Diego to set up an AFC Championship game showdown against Manning and the Colts in Indy.
Had the Patriots won that game, they likely would have defeated the Bears in Super Bowl XLI and cemented the organization's willingness to take Brady's genius for granted. When the Pats went up 21-3 in the second quarter, it looked like Brady was so good that he could win with Edward Scissorshands, Mr. Magoo and Nick Nolte as his primary wideouts.
It seemed he was destined to be stuck with subpar pass-catchers for the rest of his career.
Then Manning, with a dramatic flourish, permanently shed his can't-win-the-big-one albatross by sparking a 38-34 classic comeback. Best of all for Brady’s long-term prospects, Caldwell provided a scandalous snapshot of the burden the quarterback faced, dropping a drive-killing pass (his second unconscionable muff of the game) that forced New England to settle for a fourth-quarter field goal.
You know what happened next: Manning went to Miami and became a Brady-like champion, and the plan changed drastically in New England. Credit the Patriots' poobahs, including owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, vice president Scott Pioli and coach Bill Belichick, for recognizing their past miscalculations and aggressively trying to remedy them.
Voila: Brady's aggressive lobbying for deep threat Randy Moss led to a draft-weekend trade for the controversial former All-Pro, and another deal for the Dolphins' Wes Welker brought a bona-fide slot menace to the offense. The free-agent signings of speedy Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington bolstered the corps even more.
We saw it all on display in Sunday's dismantling of the Cowboys, with Moss (six catches, 59 yards, one TD), Welker (11 catches, 124 yards, two TDs) and Stallworth (seven catches, 136 yards, one TD) taking turns getting open and making nice moves after the catch, allowing Brady to toy with Dallas' secondary.
Barring injury or an act of nature, it's going to be like this all year. The Colts might be able to take the Pats in their Nov. 4 meeting in Indy – or, more important, in what seems an inevitable AFC Championship game rematch – but to do so, in all likelihood, Manning and the gang will again have to outscore the Brady Bunch, and this time the winning number might be in the 50s.
For now, Brady is still test-driving the first high-performance ride of his life, and wrapping his head around the scary possibility that he hasn't even hit fifth gear.
"We're looking good, and we're enjoying it right now, but there's a long way to go," he said softly as he buttoned the vest of his grey three-piece suit while standing at his locker after the game. "I've been on a lot of championship teams, and I've learned that really the games don't get significant until after Thanksgiving."
Yet it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas when Brady goes through his progressions and realizes his receivers are more uncovered and dangerous than their predecessors used to be.
"I just try to hit the guys that are open," he said. "They're really doing a great job, and it's a lot of fun."
Yep. Welcome to Peyton's world.
STORY OF MY LIFE
Showing up late at California Memorial Stadium for Saturday's game between the host Golden Bears and the Oregon State Beavers (after watching my kids tear it up on the soccer field) seemed like a grand idea, though it meant I'd have to get up crazy early to catch a 6:20 a.m. flight from Oakland, Calif., to Dallas, with the requisite all-nighter to come on Sunday. After LSU went down in triple OT at Kentucky, setting up the Bears for their first No. 1 ranking since 1951, the game took on an unmistakable had-to-be-there feel. But Cal was without injured quarterback Nate Longshore, meaning redshirt freshman Kevin Riley would have to make his first career start with a whole lot on the line, and when the Beavers took a 31-21 lead with 8:30 remaining, you could feel the air being sucked out of Strawberry Canyon. Magically, the kid grew up before 63,995 sets of eyes, hitting Lavelle Hawkins for a 64-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to three with 2:31 remaining, and later brilliantly driving Cal 83 yards (including a fourth-and-17 completion to Hawkins after a fumbled shotgun snap) and into field goal range with 14 seconds remaining. Then came what can only be described as a Fred Brown/Chris Webber-like brain freeze: Riley, with no Cal timeouts remaining, scrambled under pressure and got tackled at the 10-yard-line with six seconds left, rather than throwing the ball away. Compounding his mistake, he charged off the field (in a vain attempt to send in the field goal unit) instead of trying to line up and spike the ball. The Miracle at Memorial (we summon them every quarter-century or so) became The Berkeley Blunder, but don't you cackling outsiders go crowing that Cal's season is lost. The Bears are still in the chase for their first Rose Bowl appearance in 49 years, and they make what we hope will be the first of two trips to Pasadena next Saturday for a showdown with UCLA, one of two teams (along with Arizona State) that has yet to lose a conference game. And yes, in case you're wondering, we handily won the party after the game, a time-honored Cal tradition.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Adrian Peterson gained more rushing yards (224) against the Chicago Bears Sunday than anyone ever had in their 88-year history, and that doesn't begin to do justice to the impact the rookie from Oklahoma is making for the Minnesota Vikings. Peterson is an absolute beast – hitting the hole, blowing past, through and around would-be tacklers and pulling away from the league's elite defenders as if they were tired second-teamers or one of the Sooners' overmatched non-conference opponents. Consider this: Peterson looks like one of the NFL's 10 best players, at any position. Right now.
• Another hero of the Vikings' 34-31 victory over the Bears was Ryan Longwell, whose 55-yard field goal on the final play continued a long run of clutch kicks that began during his years with the Green Bay Packers. And, let's face it, after what went down the night before in Berkeley, I was thrilled to see a Cal guy get a chance to trot onto the field and do his thing at game's end.
• Speaking of Golden Bears, congratulations to the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez, whose 63rd and 64th career touchdown receptions moved him past Shannon Sharpe all time among NFL tight ends. Gonzalez (nine catches, 102 yards) showed he's still a force in Kansas City's 27-20 victory over the Bengals, while another ex-Cal star, Cincinnati cornerback Deltha O'Neal, forced a Larry Johnson fumble inside the 1-yard line that went out of the end zone for a touchback.
• It's starting to become clearer and clearer that, for Jon Gruden's Bucs, Jeff Garcia is morphing into a 2007 version of Rich Gannon in 2000. And if you don't think that's good enough to get Tampa Bay back to the playoffs (and, in theory, earn Gruden a fat contract extension), you haven't been paying attention.
• Wait, Devin Hester, now you can run a post pattern with a sweet double-move, and Brian Griese can heave a perfect spiral 53 yards in the air that hits you in stride? Chicago may be 2-4, but the Bears still have a chance to make a run once their defense gets healthier, because they're suddenly a whole lot more explosive on offense than they ever were in '06.
• That was a regrettably bad spot on Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley's third-down catch late in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field, which led to a calamitous fourth-and-1 pass to Ladell Betts that came up short, but the Redskins biggest problem in their 17-14 defeat at Green Bay was the Packers' incredible will. On a day in which Brett Favre threw a pair of picks to take undisputed possession of the all-time lead in that category – and, let's face it, only a really accomplished quarterback with a long career will ever come within sniffing distance of that mark (278) – it was a pair of veteran defenders, Charles Woodson and Nick Barnett, who made the biggest plays for the NFL's most surprising team of the season's first six weeks. Woodson, once viewed as overrated by some, has now reached the point at which he's officially underrated. Weird.
• FOX's Jay Glazer got his hands on yet another top-secret videotape, the Las Vegas casino surveillance feed of the offseason fight between the Dolphins' Joey Porter and the Bengals' Levi Brown. If I'm Paris Hilton, I'm staying the hell away from Glazer, the Adrian Peterson of NFL information men right now.
• Just when I was starting to wonder if Peterson might already be the best back in football, some dude named LaDainian Tomlinson (24 carries, 198 yards, four TDs) snapped me back to reality. For what it's worth, LT and "AD" (short for "All Day," and Peterson's longtime nickname) go head-to-head at the Metrodome on Nov. 4.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Kurt Warner is hoping for a prayer-induced miracle to get him back onto the field quickly for the Cardinals, and there are few things I would put past the devoutly Christian quarterback. But if it turns out he's sidelined for weeks or months, the Cards (3-3 after Sunday's 25-10 defeat to the Panthers) are in deep trouble. That would be especially unfortunate given that the NFC West is an eminently winnable division (Arizona is tied for first place with struggling Seattle, a half-game ahead of San Francisco). I though it was strange that the Cardinals put former starter Matt Leinart on season-ending injured reserve after he broke his collarbone in the previous Sunday's victory over the Rams, as if the team was trying to shove aside any potential for a quarterback controversy until 2008. If it turns out Leinart could have returned before Warner does, the move will officially have been a regrettable one. In the meantime, if Tim Rattay continues to start at quarterback, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt will have to scale back his offense … and his expectations.
• When Vince Young took that face-plant on the Titans' sidelines Sunday against Tampa Bay, it was a truly scary moment, as it looked like one of the NFL's brightest young stars might have been seriously injured. I know skeptical pocket-partial purists out there (I'm talking to you, Pete Prisco) are waiting for Young to pay for his scrambling sins, but I prefer to think he truly is In-Vince-able.
• The Bengals have now lost seven of their past eight games, and I'm wondering whether this franchise will ever recover from that awful Carson Palmer knee injury in the playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium 21 months ago. Playing in the AFC means that at 1-4, Cincinnati is almost certainly staring at another disappointing season and inevitable questions about coach Marvin Lewis's job security.
• After doing a double-take at the Jets' throwback jerseys (to the New York Titans days) in New York's defeat to the Eagles, I'm wondering which NFL franchise is going to man up and break out the hot-pink unis one of these Sundays. It would be fabulous.
• I'm a big Santana Moss fan, but it unnerved me when the Redskins' star wideout responded to his fumble on a reverse that led to Charles Woodson's game-winning touchdown for the Packers by benching himself, later explaining he thought his teammates could do better than he could at that time. What, he plays when he wants to play? Is he turning into his (non-related) namesake Randy? And, creepier still, is Randy turning into a dependable warrior like Santana usually is?
• With 0-6 Miami about to host the Patriots and 0-6 St. Louis heading to Seattle to face a grumpy bunch of Seahawks, members of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably shouldn't plan on twisting off the caps of the ultra-cheap Ripple for at least a couple of weeks.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Cab drivers who acknowledge your destination request as though they are familiar with it, speed off in the general direction and then start asking you, the passenger, how to get there rather than using a radio or cell phone to figure it out. Meanwhile, you're in an unfamiliar town and have no idea how to get where you're going – and you wonder why the cabbie didn't ask the hotel valet for some help in the first place.
2. The guy at Tom Brady's postgame press conference Sunday who blurted out, "Tam, Tam – talk about the long touchdown pass to Donte' Stallworth. It looked like you two were doing the Jitterbug, and the Dallas secondary was doing the Charleston." Understandably puzzled by the lameness of the question, Brady answered, "Is that right? I don't know what the hell that means." And we non-clownish sportswriters wonder why the general public regards us as buffoons?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Come on, Brad Childress, admit it: Chester Taylor is on your fantasy team. I realize that you don't want to subject Peterson to over-usage during his rookie season, but giving him less than half of his team's carries in a game in which he was utterly dominant is just plain insane. Let's see, should you hand the ball to Peterson (20 carries, 224 yards, three TDs) or Taylor (22 carries, 83 yards)? That's a really tough call. And I love how, with Taylor as your nominal starter (still!), you somehow feel OK about using Peterson as a kickoff return guy. I can see doing it in certain key situations – and, granted, his 53-yard return set up Longwell's game-winner Sunday – but, as a rule, don't you want to be a bit careful with the fine china? Or have you forgotten that your No. 1 pick in '06, linebacker Chad Greenway, blew out his knee while covering a kickoff in an exhibition game and missed his entire rookie season? Here's a novel thought: Why not have Taylor return kicks, and let Peterson be the workhorse back he's clearly meant to be?
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Before he won a game as the Dallas Cowboys' new coach and turned a talented but inconsistent team into the clear-cut favorite to win the NFC.' You're full of crap Silver. You picked the Saints to win the NFC. You sports writers are all the same. Why can't any of you admit you didn't see it coming? I'm a Cowboys fan and I didn't see a 5-0 start coming. Across the board all you 'experts' picked either Philly or the Saints to go to the Bowl. Across the board. Again. you're full of crap."
You seem to have misunderstood what I originally wrote, but if your point is that by picking the Saints to win the NFC (and yes, in retrospect, that was a crappy call), I surrendered my right to designate a different team as the favorite to win the conference five weeks into the season, I'm going to have to disagree. And if I'm the same as the other journalists who are with me right now in the Texas Stadium press box – including, possibly, the Jitterbug/Charleston guy referenced above – can someone please come up here and throw me through the window?
"Liked your column on the 'Boys and agree basically with your assessment that Phillips' personality has certainly caused some kind of positive chemical reaction on that team. But give Parcells some credit. He brought in most of that personnel. I think Bill got the car warmed up and Wade's taking it for a ride. No affront to either talented coach."
I agree that Parcells deserves credit for helping to acquire some of the talented players, though while we're passing it around, let's include Jerry and Stephen Jones, who made the tough calls and were smart enough to identify Phillips as the ideal successor.
"'We've all had bosses who think such pettiness is amusing and who believe that playing mind games and power-flexing is an effective management strategy. And we've all gone home at night and gotten down on our knees and prayed that the boss in question would be replaced by someone who resembles an actual human being.' Sir did you find this passage in the Bible because that is soooooooooooooo true! Been there, done it. Got the T-shirt!"
Beaver Falls, Pa.
I found it in the Book of J-O-B.
"Keep the Chargers in last place! What has changed? They beat a terrible Bronco team, who cares? Stop going back and forth with these guys. Your reactionary nature is great for your profession, but Charger fans have had it. You chose the Chargers to win the division, then ranked them as the next to worst, then worst team in the league. Keep them ranked last. The Chargers don't have to prove anything to sportswriters, so maintain some sort of consistency – we don't need your ‘great insight.' "
Sorry, Benjamin, but I'm afraid Yahoo!'s readership numbers say you do. I'll admit the Chargers disgusted me so much after their first four games that it triggered an extreme response, but just out of curiosity, what the hell does what I think about the Chargers have to do with them winning football games?
"How, after only one loss to a division rival (and mind you, a division rival playing in a must-win game), could you rate Green Bay as the 13th best team behind the likes of Arizona, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and yes, Chicago? I guess I have a 33rd burning question for you, ‘When are you going to stop burning the crack pipe?' By the way, Michael, I do like your column. Keep up the good work (but please try to get it right when you are writing about my beloved Packers). Go Pack!"
Hey Sam, I think the Pack will ultimately be undone by the lack of a running game and the resulting pressure it puts on Brett Favre. But they showed me something on Sunday, and you'll see them rise on Wednesday as a result. As far as the crack pipe, do I need to come up there and go all Whitney Houston on you Nov. 4?
"So what is so abnormal or wrong about the Texans QB wanting to meet President George W. Bush? I mean, couldn't you have come up with a better question for the Texans than some fourth grade mentality joke? Who would you most like to meet then?"
Hey, thanks for asking. Here are seven people off the top of my head: Sascha Baron Cohen, Charlie Kaufman, Jodie Foster, Mick Jagger, Halle Berry, Chrissie Hynde and President Al Gore.
"How bad is pro football for the Ravens to be only in 11th and not worse? Maybe it's because they don't have the Johnny Unitas reincarnate at the helm. They would average 35 points and 400 yards of offense. What does it matter how many points they score as long as they win. I could care less if they won 6-3 as long as they win. Maybe you should ask yourself how good they are to win with so little gain. I write this because I find your comments rude and disrespectful to my hometown team. Why don't talk about how bad football is with the NFC East having two wild-card teams in the same division or why don't you do the common thing and talk about how great the Pats and the Colts are playing in the two weakest divisions in the AFC. Just be common like the rest of them."
I will never, ever, ever be common. Think of it this way: It's like I'm doing The Hustle and the rest of them are doing the ‘Let's Sit This One Out.'
"Actually, the Raiders is a collective noun which is treated as singular not plural. Think of it this way, anytime you see the word Raiders, insert the word team, and see how the grammar works. I'm sure someone else could give a better explanation, but seriously, please do some research before giving grammar lessons. Gee whiz!"
Long Beach, Calif.
Actually, here's some more flawed grammar, Snoop Dogg style: With so much drama from the LBC it's kinda hard being Mike SILV. Sorry to go all gangsta on you, and I do appreciate the faux lesson, but I'm afraid I have some bad news: I am right and you are wrong. Class dismissed … again.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Earth to kevin riley – can u hear me? Ouch."
Text from Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr – proud Arizona alum, former Yahoo! Sports NBA analyst and ex-Palisades (High School) Tideline sports columnist (along with yours truly) – on the not-so-fantastic finish to the Cal-Oregon State game.