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8 Upper

Good Riddance

By Tom Scocca | Posted 1/19/2000

Of all the pinball action in round two of the National Football League playoffs—the 100-yard kickoff return, the 91-yard run around end, the celebration-dance-cum-fumble-return touchdown—the play that sticks with me is a short touchdown pass, a 1-yard toss from Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Shaun King to backup tight end John Davis. The pass, which gave Tampa Bay a 14-13 lead over the Washington [racial slur], was not the most spectacular play in the four-game slate. It probably wasn't the 10th-most spectacular. Still, it nicely summed up the weekend's action: It was cold-blooded, decisive, and inevitable.

Playoff football is not a romantic business, especially by the second round. It's possible for weak teams to sneak into the playoffs, as wild-card teams or the champions of second-rate divisions. Facing other weak teams in the first round, they may even win a game. But then their hopeful illusions hit the rude truth: Good teams beat bad ones.

This fact does not sit well with our neighbors to the south. Because Tampa Bay won narrowly, and because the [racial slur] botched the snap on a late 52-yard field-goal attempt, the Washingtonians and their partisans have been bleating that the game could have gone the other way. It couldn't have.

The day after the game, I saw reports, in two leading newspapers, that King's throw was "blind" or "desperate." This is mythology. The play was, in fact, intentional and precise: Tampa Bay faked a running play, and 19 players piled up on the goal line. This left one defender, Washington tackle Ndukwe Kalu, between King and Davis. Kalu charged King. King stepped up to meet him and threw the ball. Davis, alone in the end zone, caught it.

Because the play ended with King flat on his back, the D.C. faithful claimed that their man almost sacked King. This is like claiming the Soviets almost beat the United States to the moon. King knew when Kalu would reach him, and he was going to get rid of the ball before they met. The worst that could have happened, if Davis hadn't broken clear, was that the pass would have been incomplete.

By Monday, the [racial slur] were so convinced they should have won that they fired long snapper Dan Turk for screwing up the field-goal try, then dumped his brother, punter Matt Turk, for good measure. But the [racial slur] didn't lose on the field goal. Broadly speaking, they lost because the Bucs held the [racial slur]'s offense, supposedly their strong suit, to 157 yards and no touchdowns. Narrowly speaking, they lost because when they did mess up that snap, on 4th-and-3, they didn't have the wit to make something happen on the broken play.

Bad teams, as ex-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson can testify, make their own luck. Johnson saw four years of his own mythmaking stripped away in 15 minutes of game time on Saturday afternoon, as the Dolphins fell behind 24-0 in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars, en route to a 62-7 flensing. Miami simply caved in, physically and mentally, against real opposition—missing tackles, dropping passes, watching forlornly as the ball bounced out of their hands and into the Jaguars'.

If Johnson wasn't such a swaggering prick, he'd be almost pitiable. In 1996, fresh off two titles with the Dallas Cowboys and high on his own reputation, he took over the Dolphins from Don Shula and announced his plan to transform Shula's team—an amiable, pass-happy bunch—into a smash-mouth, defense-first Super Bowl contender. What Johnson overlooked was that Shula's Dolphins were a winning amiable, pass-happy bunch. He brought in bad-tempered, sometimes criminal players, but he didn't bring in better ones. In the end, his new-look Dolphins were exposed as a work of fiction, if not fraud.

Not all the weekend's revelations are so negative. The Minnesota Vikings learned that they are not a championship team, true enough, but mainly they learned that the St. Louis Rams are. Unlike the Dolphins and the [racial slur], the Vikes came off as a pretty decent football team. But the Rams are a frightening one.

The basic state of football, even between mismatched teams, is a stalemate: The teams stand off, trading possessions, and every once in a while the better team scores. Not so the Rams. The basic state of the Rams is to be in the end zone. It takes an affirmative effort to keep them from scoring. The Vikings gave it a nice try in the first half—taking a lead into the locker room, even—and then the Rams snapped off five unanswered touchdowns. If coach Dick Vermeil hadn't put the clutch in and started running the ball, his team might have outscored Jacksonville.

And then there were those Colts. It was early in the third quarter of the weekend's last playoff game, when Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George charged 68 yards up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown, that I knew the Colts weren't going to the Super Bowl this year after all. Tennessee—how did this team lose to the Ravens?—was the superior team.

Let people in purple jeer if they want. I was pulling unashamedly for the horseshoe helmets. If veteran linebacker Cornelius Bennett, sidelined with a knee injury, had been in George's path, things might have been different. But he wasn't, and the Titans—older, deeper, and sharper—were too much for the gifted, young Colts to handle. They went down gamely and respectably. It was deflating, but it wasn't disappointing.

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