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Madden: Time for some fun at NFL's expense

Saturday, February 01, 2003

Football is a funny game.

It's public knowledge that the Detroit Lions definitely want to hire Steve Mariucci as their new coach. But they can't make it official until they appease the NFL by interviewing some minority candidates. Former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green and Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis already have declined the chance to be tokens, so Mariucci's hiring is on hold until a black man comes forward to participate in a white man's charade.

I suggest the Lions interview Martin Lawrence. If the hiring process is a joke, why not bring in a comedian? A video of dull-witted Lions President Matt Millen talking with Lawrence about the latter's coaching credentials would be funnier than Jimmy Kimmel's new late-night disaster, that's for sure.

For big-time gridiron laughs, though, there's nothing to beat the Mike Vanderjagt saga.

Vanderjagt, the Indianapolis Colts' kicker, recently said (in so many words) that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Coach Tony Dungy are too soft to win big games, that they lack the ability to manufacture extra intensity in meaningful situations.

Manning never has won a playoff game. Dungy left Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers immediately won a Super Bowl. You can call Vanderjagt a lousy teammate, but you can't call him a liar.

The backlash has been predictable. Manning is upset. Dungy continues to be boring. Vanderjagt has backpedaled, probably for the sake of continued employment in Indianapolis.

The big yucks regarding Vanderjagt's analysis have been generated by former jocks with microphones, most notably Mark Schlereth of ESPN. Schlereth, a Super Bowl-winning lineman, yelped in the register of a teenage girl when responding thusly to Vanderjagt: "He's just a kicker! He's not even a real football player! He doesn't know what it's like to bang helmets, blah, blah, blah, etc."

In defense of Vanderjagt, I present the following:

Statistically, Vanderjagt is the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history.

On Nov. 24, in a driving snowstorm at Denver, Vanderjagt kicked a 54-yard field goal to tie the score on the last play of regulation, then hit a 51-yarder in overtime. The victory wound up getting the Colts a playoff spot. Vanderjagt might not be a "real football player." But did Schlereth ever do anything individually that had as much impact on his team's season? No. Did he ever face similar pressure? No.

When was the last time Schlereth read a book? Hardback comic compilations don't count.

Mark, your career's over. You don't need to be that big anymore. Not that I'm implying anything.

The criticism of Vanderjagt by cementheads such as Schlereth underlines a growing trend in sports and in society. What's said is not nearly as important as who says it. If a Colts lineman had blasted Manning, that would have been OK by Schlereth, because after all, guys like that are fighting like men down in the trenches, i.e., randomly assuming the fetal position every 45 seconds.

When are the sports fans of the world going to call the former jocks with microphones on being the fools that they are?

Give me John Clayton over Schlereth any day. Give me someone who has spent a lifetime learning the game over someone who spent a few fleeting moments filling a specialized role within it. If Vanderjagt isn't qualified to criticize a quarterback or a coach, then Schlereth doesn't have the right to analyze the performance of anyone but linemen. I don't seem to recall him running many reverses.

The fans had better figure out what idiots the former jocks are, because the networks won't. They are run and staffed by the worst kind of jock-sniffers.

When Vanderjagt's comments hit the fan, his playoff miss against the New York Jets was shown over and over on TV. What a crucial kick it was, too. If Vanderjagt makes it, the Colts only lose 41-3. His heroics at Denver, meanwhile, got very short shrift.

Some (very few) former jocks have become credible members of the media. But I'm not going to identify any right now. If Schlereth can make a blanket statement about kickers, I can do the same about the lamebrains that the late, great Howard Cosell called the "jockocracy."

Besides abject stupidity, the biggest sin of the jockocracy is their unwillingness to offend the brotherhood. When one guy blows a game, it's not about his mistake. It's about 53 guys winning or losing as a team. Well, 51, anyway, because you can't count the kicker and the punter. Back when, the jockocracy flinched whenever the media made them absorb blame. Therefore, they won't humiliate today's players.

Add it all up, and it's boring. No former jock with a microphone has ever been as entertaining or as informative as Cosell. And none ever will be.

Meantime, I have a new favorite football player: Mike Vanderjagt. It's a shame he's not black. He would make one heck of a coach.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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