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25 Oct 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Gad-Zooks

By Russell Levine

Wow, that didn't take long.

Less than 48 hours after Florida's stunning loss to Mississippi State, the university fired head coach Ron Zook, who has seemingly been awaiting the axe since the day he replaced Steve Spurrier.

Zook arrived in Gainesville already on shaky ground -- he was at least the school's third choice after it failed to land Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and the Broncos' Mike Shanahan -- and replacing a legend of Spurrier's ilk is never easy. The web address "fireronzook.com" was registered the day after the hiring was announced, and Zook didn't do much to change the thinking of skeptical Gator fans by going 20-13 in two-plus seasons, including an 0-2 record in bowl games. Getting into a scrape with some fraternity brothers a couple of weeks back didn't help matters.

But relieved Gator fans won't be the only ones celebrating Zook's dismissal. When a program the stature of Florida's cans its coach, it kicks off a silly season that puts to shame anything that even the worst excesses of baseball's free agency period has to offer. That's because any school in America with a hot coaching candidate and a program that's not as big as Florida's knows it will have to pay up or answer to fans and alums why it just lost the best coach it ever had. Nowhere are cash registers ringing louder than in Salt Lake City, where the University of Utah's head coach, Urban Meyer, will either leave for a megabucks deal with Florida, or parlay Florida's interest into a megabucks extension to stay.

Louisville's Bobby Petrino secretly interviewed for the Auburn job last season before the Auburn job even became available, then lied about it after the story became public. Did his employer punish him for such insubordination? No, it gave him a hefty raise, and it will likely give him another one if Florida shows interest in Petrino, who replaced John L. Smith, who was hired away by Michigan State on the same day Louisville played in a bowl game. That's the way it works in big-time college football, where boosters often call the shots and even a coach with the shortest track-record of success can turn a job interview into a huge raise from his current employer.

It's a sad day when college football is more cutthroat than the NFL, but that's exactly what has happened with this move by Florida. NFL teams rarely fire coaches in-season, but Florida will no doubt cite the need to preserve this year's recruiting as justification for letting Zook go in mid-season. The race to hire coaches before "negative recruiting" -- the fear that other schools will advise recruits to avoid the unsettled coaching situation at Florida -- sets in drives a win-at-all-costs mindset that has pushed total compensation for the top college coaches north of $2 million per year. In fact, head coaches are the highest paid employees of several states, just as Army coach Bobby Ross is technically one of the highest-paid employees of the federal government (technically, because a portion of Ross's salary is paid by Army boosters).

It sounds as if the school will allow Zook and his staff will finish the season, which is a strange move. Florida owes Zook nearly $2 million over the next four years -- a fact that surely will take some of the urgency out of his job search. What exactly will be his motivation over the next four games? In the next few weeks, Meyer, Petrino and others will vehemently deny their interest in the Florida job in an effort to prevent negative recruiting from setting in at their programs. University presidents and athletic directors will scramble to find even more money to persuade their hot, young coaches to stay put. One of them will depart for Gainesville, the others will get paid to stay -- the same way it happens every year in Division I-A.

Some of you are probably thinking that it's awful presumptive of me to assume that Spurrier won't be the one to return and resuscitate the Gator program. Florida fans would no doubt prefer that option, but I can't see it happening. Spurrier is a Bill Parcells type -- a coach that wants to come in a rescue a downtrodden program so he can be hailed as the hero all over again. He's a much better fit at North Carolina, where the Tar Heel program has fallen on hard times. UNC has enough cash to persuade the Ol' Ball Coach to end his retirement and come to the ACC, where he wouldn't have to play Florida. Spurrier knows that if he could get the Tar Heels to 8-3, they'd name streets after him. Go 8-3 in a return to Florida, and he'd be vilified on talk radio all day.

My prediction is that Meyer will be the one to accept Florida's money. Florida's president, Dr. J. Bernard Machen, hired Meyer when he served in the same capacity at Utah. College football is a caste system where it doesn't matter if Utah goes undefeated and plays in a BCS bowl this season -- it'll never have the same cachet as a program like Florida, which is part of the sport's elite.

* * *

If Florida posted the most embarrassing loss of the weekend, the Atlanta Falcons weren't far behind. Atlanta -- sporting a 5-1 record and the top-ranked run defense in football according to both traditional methods and DVOA -- arrived in Kansas City to face the 1-4 Chiefs. The first clue that something odd was about to occur was the point spread -- the Chiefs were favored by four, clearly this week's "too good to be true" line. And as is almost always the case, the odds makers knew what they were talking about, as the Chiefs eked out a 56-10 win that included an NFL-record eight rushing touchdowns.

What happened?

Atlanta fans shouldn't read too much into the result. Stinkers happen to every team now and then, and no sport can get out of hand as quickly as a football, where so much of a team's success is determined by its will. Lose the will to play, and any team will get routed.

What I would be concerned about is Michael Vick, but maybe not for the reasons people think. Vick has clearly struggled this year as he learns Atlanta's version of the West Coast offense. Last week against San Diego, he got off to a very slow start before donning the Superman cape at halftime, using his arm and legs to bring the Falcons to a come-from-behind win and appeared to have turned the corner, but he was awful against Kansas City.

I have always maintained that Vick will truly realize his potential when he learns to use the threat of the run to open up plays in the passing game. His scrambling can be breathtaking, but it's also as likely to put him on the injured list as it is to lead the Falcons deep into the playoffs. In order, he needs to learn to make plays from the pocket, then use his legs to make plays in the passing game, and finally, to pick his spots to scramble and protect himself when he does.

So it's understandable that Vick will struggle as he attempts to master that first skill -- staying put in the pocket and delivering the football even as his instincts are telling him to run. If anything, he has overcompensated for his tendency to scramble, which is why he's been sacked so often this season. Vick certainly needs more than seven games to master a complex new system. If he can pull it off, he'll be far more dangerous than he was in his breakout season of 2002, when his primary weapon was the run, and when he also missed several games due to injury.

The reason I'd be concerned about Vick is his contract. It's rumored that the Falcons will try to sign Vick to a long-term contract extension following the season, and that hey may receive a larger signing bonus than the $34.5 million the Colts gave Peyton Manning. Look, there's no doubting Vick's talent, and the fact that he's the face of the franchise. Would the Georgia dome be sold out if he weren't on the Falcons? Unlikely. But to risk that kind of money on a player who has yet to prove he can play at consistently high level and stay healthy is ridiculous. At least Manning has been the top passing quarterback in the NFL for a few years and led the Colts to two playoff wins last season. Manning has never missed a game in his NFL career, whereas Vick has yet to play a full season and is taking a lot of punishment as he finds his way this year.

Based on the threat of injury alone, there's no way I'd advise the Falcons to give Vick that kind of money, but it's hard to imagine Vick, the most marketable player in the NFL, won't get it.

* * *

Thank goodness for Mike Martz.

Just when I was struggling to find a winner of the weekly Mike Martz Award, the man himself stepped to the forefront to claim the prize that is named in his honor. Tied with Miami, 7-7, the Rams appeared to have forced the Dolphins to settle for a long field-goal attempt in the final minute of the first half.

Instead, Martz accepted a holding penalty against Miami, making it 3rd-and-28 from the St. Louis 42 instead of 4th-and-18 from the 32. Declining the penalty would have left substitute Miami kicker Matt Bryant with a 49-yard attempt -- hardly a gimme. Instead, Martz elected to push the Dolphins back, and the result was a 42-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Randy McMichael on third down. Predictably, the Rams never contended in the second half as Miami cruised to its first win of the season.

For showing overconfidence in his defense and challenging the worst offense in football to beat him, Martz claims his own award this week.

If I had an "Anti-Mike Martz" award (the Belichick?) to give out this week, it would go to Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio is obviously living right, as his first-place Jags have claimed all five of their wins in the final minute, including Sunday's road upset of Indianapolis. Del Rio showed incredible confidence in his rookie kicker, Josh Scobee, allowing him to attempt a 53-yard field goal for the lead with 43 seconds left.

Most coaches, seeing Peyton Manning on the other sideline, would have punted in that situation rather than risk giving Manning the ball at the 43 with the score tied. But Del Rio never wavered, and his players won't forget the confidence he showed in them in a critical division game. That's the kind of play that resonates come playoff time.

* * *

Please forgive me if this column rambles incoherently. It's just a case of that October time warp when the baseball postseason overlaps with football and leaves me with simply too little sleep. (I know, I know. What's my excuse for incoherent ramblings the rest of the year?) Living in the East, it's comparable to staying up for Monday Night Football every night for three weeks. It has a discernable negative effect on sleep patterns and brain functionality (that's my excuse for why my wife has beaten me picking college games for two straight weeks -- she goes to bed early).

On Sunday I found myself complaining about the announcers in the Chicago-Tampa Bay game and thinking of examples from the World Series to support my argument.

Yes, I did watch every play of Bears-Bucs. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.

One of the worst sins an announcer can commit is to call the game without looking at the TV monitors that are right in front of them. Announcers need to remember that the view we, the fans, are seeing is the one that's on the monitors, not the one they see from the booth. The FOX announcing team of Kevin Slaton and Jayice Pearson was speculating why Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott had fumbled -- offering such observations as "I don't really see why the ball came out of there" -- while the TV viewers were treated to several replays of Alstott's right knee being bent sideways at a grotesque angle. As Alstott clutched at the injured joint, he let go of the ball.

Listening to Slaton and Pearson miss what was obvious to any viewer with the TV on mute reminded me of a play in Game 1 of the World Series the night before, and proved that when it comes to calling games on TV, neither the sport, nor the quality of the announcers matters when it comes to missing the obvious. It was during the eighth inning of Manny Ramirez's outfield misadventures. As Red Sox left fielder Ramirez attempted to make a sliding catch of a sinking liner, his spike caught in the turf, causing his knee to take a huge divot out of the grass and sending him tumbling over. The ball glanced off the outside of his glove.

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver in the FOX booth commented over endless replays that the ball had never even made it inside of Ramirez's glove, as if that somehow made him an even worse outfielder than everyone knows he is. They failed to even once mention that it was his spike catching in the grass that caused him to tumble so awkwardly and miss the catch.

Back in Tampa, Pearson and Slaton at least did their best to pump up what was a dreadful game between two bad teams. The best line of the day came from Pearson, who offered, "Normally, you win the turnover battle, you win the game. The Bears won the turnover battle -- until the interception, now it's even." You know your favorite team is having a bad year when every week, you've never heard of the TV crew. When I first heard Slaton refer to his partner as "JC," I thought, hmm, JC ... JC ... Watts? before learning it was actually Jayice Pearson, a former NFL cornerback with the Chiefs and Vikings from 1986-93. I'm not the only one that isn't familiar with Pearson's work. In the USA Today game rundown on Friday, the one that lists all the TV announcers, he was referred to as "JC Pearson."

Yes, I'm a glutton for watching the Buccaneers every week and I can expect a steady stream of low-wattage announcing teams the rest of the way. Even when they were good, which they most certainly are not now, the Bucs didn't play the most picturesque brand of football, but it's even worse now. The team is literally falling apart, with Alstott just the latest injury casualty. Michael Pittman, once again the featured tailback after Charlie Garner's knee disintegrated a few weeks ago, also left the field late after having his knee bent at an awkward angle.

I'm excited about Tampa Bay's rebuilding project. The team is finally stockpiling draft choices, having pulled a third and a sixth-round selection from San Diego for holdout, 34-year old receiver Keenan McCardell. Tampa Bay already owns San Diego's fifth-round choice, acquired for Roman Oben in the preseason, and as it stands now the team will enter the 2005 selection meeting with 11 choices, including all seven of its own picks for the first time in years.

As for the Bears, they're going nowhere fast until the team upgrades the quarterback position. When promising young starter Rex Grossman was lost for the season with a knee injury, the team turned to Jonathan Quinn, who has been miserable in his three starts.

After going 5-for-9 for 47 yards in the first half (I had to laugh when I saw those numbers on FOX's "Fantasy Tracker." Is there a fantasy team anywhere in America with Jonathan Quinn on the roster?) Quinn was replaced at halftime by rookie fifth-round pick Craig Krenzel, leading to this exchange with my wife, Susan:

Susan: "What's the score, 0-0?" (She knows the Bucs all too well).

Me: "Funny. It's 10-0 Tampa Bay. Craig Krenzel is at quarterback for the Bears."

Susan: "Why do I know that name?"

Me: "He was the Ohio State QB. Remember, the molecular genetics major?" (Susan, a genetic counselor, was always impressed by Krenzel's academic pedigree.)

Susan: "How's he playing?"

Me: "Like a molecular genetics major."

Posted by: Russell Levine on 25 Oct 2004

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