One day back in June, my pal Jean Fugett called from Baltimore and while we talked, he told me that the Ravens deal for QB Steve McNair was completed and then he said: "The Ravens just won themselves another Super Bowl."
Now opinions are easy but sometimes you get one from a buddy who was such a good athlete that he played eight seasons in the NFL, who is smart enough to have graduated from Amherst College, talented enough to play the first of his four seasons for the Cowboys at age 20, driven enough to get a law degree from GW, and sought after enough to play four seasons with the Redskins after signing as a free agent. So that's an opinion you listen to. One thing I've learned about a lot of former pro football players: they see things and can tell you things about what happens on the field that you can only dream about seeing or knowing. So you listen, you definitely listen. (You also realize that some of the former NFL players who are hired to describe the games on our TVs really do know less than we do. Are you getting this, Theismann? How about you, Irvin?)
Despite the long list of injuries that McNair had suffered while quarterbacking the Titans for 11 seasons (broken sternum, infected shoulder among them), Jean believed that this was the right move with the right guy at the right time. While Miami and its Genius Coach were spitting the bit by signing Daunte Culpepper (and rejecting both Drew Brees and McNair), Baltimore made its choice early on and let McNair know he still had a future in the game.
"The only thing this team was missing was leadership at the most important position," Jean says. That's a big piece of missing. "Roger Staubach didn't say much but he led us. He'd play like he's not saving anything for another play; he's giving it all on THIS play. That's the way McNair plays.
"And there was a play early this season, one of the first drives of the year when he showed just that. It was hard for Kyle Boller to lead on a team that had Ray Lewis (still does) and Deion Sanders (long gone). I knew McNair could do that. And give credit to Ozzie Newsome (the GM) and Brian Billick for recognizing it in McNair."
When we got a chance to watch McNair in his Titans years we always thought there was something more going on inside this cat than in most QBs in the league. He always played hurt and made the most of out of his assets. We're hoping he gets to show that and then some on Saturday when the Colts play their first playoff game in Baltimore since they were the home team and lost to the Raiders in 1977. It's a delicious matchup and as much as we'd like to see Peyton get his playoff monkey off his back and see Tony Dungy take his team to the Super Bowl, we're rooting for the Ravens. (Jean's not only smarter than me, he's bigger, too.)
And while we're at it on the Ravens, you might think that a lot of teams would pay attention to the run of success Baltimore has had over the 11 seasons in Baltimore. (I know you ExtremeRavens fans might not think it's enough; check out the Cardinals or Raiders or Lions if you want to learn about real failure.) This team drafts well, it signs worthwhile free agents, has stability at the top and courage to fix a mistake once it's apparent (Billick jettisoning his friend and offensive coordinator Jim Fassel earlier this season, for one.) So many of the Ravens stars came to them the best way going: through the draft. Adalius Thomas, Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Todd Heap, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden , Mark Clayton, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are all starting (and starring) for Baltimore and were all picked by the team.
Although the Ravens have been flying high this season, they have mostly remained under a radar filled with Chargers, Bears, Colts and Saints. This is a team to watch for more reasons than the QB. But just watching and enjoying the success the QB is having is good reason, too.
As for the other AFC game:
Do you think it's really possible for Marty Schottenheimer to continue to overlook who he has been as an NFL coach for his 21 seasons? He's got more wins overall than Bill Cowher but no one will make a big deal about him walking away from a team like they did for the Chin this week. He's got more wins than any coach in the league over the last 25 years. Marty coached a lot of good teams in a lot of good places (original Cleveland Browns, Chiefs, Redskins) but never took his team farther than an AFC championship game. But now he has LT on offense and Shawne Merriman (whatever you may think of him, the guy can really play) on D and the inner Schottenheimer hasn't shown itself. On Sunday, the Patriots made the Jets look like what most of us thought the Jets would look like this season. You probably should never pick against loony Bill Belichick and incandescent Tom Brady. Doesn't mean we can't root for the other guys, though.
In the NFC:
Rex Grossman stinks. He should be embarrassed for the way he let his season disintegrate. I'm no longer interested in Rex the wonder QB and his inattentive 0.0 passer rating. He should be ashamed on so many counts for his lack of attention to that last game against the Pack and for owning up to it in public. He said it was New Year's Eve for god's sake! Here's a thought Rex. You should have walked into Coach Lovie Smith's office and said the following:
"Coach, I don't know what was wrong with me on Sunday night. I didn't have my head in the game. I want you to know that. I apologize to you. I'll apologize to the team if you want. I want to understand why I could act like that and I need you to tell me."
And then shut up about it. But no, Rex had to tell the world and when will anyone who roots for the Bears ever trust (or care about) this guy ever again? Boo.
There is one team worth rooting for on this side of the board: Our Saints. Sure I'm a Giants fan. Always have been, always will be. But I also root for the story and if this ain't the story of the year in the NFL, what is? Go Saints. Beat Dem Iggles.
And as for the Seahawks, put a Starbucks receipt in the proper pocket (read comment No. 4 on this link) and they got nuthin' to worry about.