What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
02 Feb 2012
by Mike Tanier
Sunday, 7:00 PM Central: Chicago, Illinois. I am in O’Hare Airport for a not-too-brief stopover on my way to Indianapolis. On the plane from Philadelphia, the crew only gave information on one connection flight: the plane to Harrisburg. Someone flew from Philadelphia to Chicago to Harrisburg. They could have driven there during the boarding and taxi times.
I read the Sky Mall catalogue to try to get the irony going, but it did not work. There was a doggie stepladder in the catalogue for about $129. I have been in the market for a doggie stepladder for months: Rosie has a hard time reaching the bed these days. So it’s now no longer a matter of the idiocy of the products in Sky Mall, but the price points. If they meet me halfway, I will buy. Stand-up comics have mined Sky Mall for too long. It is worth spending 15 minutes looking at extravagantly tacky and wholly unnecessary objects when there is nothing else to look at but the grey of the cabin and the blue of the seat in front of you. No one wants to buy a life-sized replica sarcophagus, but many appreciate the opportunity to stare at one in transfixed befuddlement.
I am near gate B-21, the furthest godforsaken point from anywhere that you can be in this airport. Terminals usually do not have twists and turns, but you need to make a left and a right to get to B-21 from B-1 though B-20. If this were a MMORPG, B-21 would be a mod by some crazy person who likes to put red dragons behind every door. The planes would be the dragons.
My carry-on bags are filled with Under Armour. The folks at Under Armour sent me a swag box full of base layer gear and hats; it arrived at my house while I was in Mobile. A swag box! Actual perks! The Under Armour clothing is the first fringe benefit that I have gotten since becoming a writer. Except for the Super Bowl pass. And the $50 worth of booze and food I consumed at that party in Mobile last week. And the Derek Jeter ... okay, I get a lot of perks. But this one was nice.
Oooh, the ever-so-comfortable warmth (or coolness, as needed) of Under Armour.
I make a terrible shill. And they probably don’t want some awkward endorsement that takes up several paragraphs. But the stuff fits. It looks good, or it would on someone who doesn’t look like he is wearing sausage casing if his clothes don’t hang from him like sack cloth. Under Armour products are much better than the t-shirts I used to wear back when I exercised regularly, and they are probably at least as good, if not better or possibly slightly worse, than all of the other active wear made by all the leading brands out there. And they gave me free stuff. And they are Maryland based, and I like Maryland. Go Under Armour!
Other companies I am willing to accept free swag from: Makers’ Mark Distillery, EA Sports, any place that makes premium bacon.
There was snow on the ground across the Midwest, I looked straight down from my window, past the wing of the plane, and saw an endless geometry in white and off-grey. Straight lines of highways, blotches of lakes, neat rectangle farms, tangles of towns which lit up as night fell. It was peace before the Super Bowl storm.
Time to call the wife and write pithy intros for the Times.
Monday, 9:00 PM Eastern: Indianapolis. Rob Gronkowski did not practice today because of his sprained ankle.
|The JW Marriott|
There are several thousand credentialed media members temporarily living in three hotels within a quarter-mile radius, and we have exactly one real story: that Rob Gronkowski did not practice today because of his sprained ankle. Fanning out from our little hub in the Marriott complex are thousands of secondary sources, from talk show hosts to bloggers, all of whom have one story to cover: Rob Gronkowski did not practice today because of his sprained ankle.
I hate to think like this, but when I am tired this is how I think: What if all of us ditched the Gronkowski story and did something constructive with these hours? If we all pitched in at a construction site during this Gronkowski Time, could we build a house? A neighborhood? And if we added up all of the Gronkowski Times –- not the times when we are covering a series of diverse stories from around the football realm for your entertainment (that has redeeming value), but the times we take turns sucking the marrow out of the already desiccated bones of a long-dead kill -– what could we accomplish? Not much, I suppose, because few of us have any other skills.
Earlier today, someone on NFL Network asked Tedy Bruschi what Tom Brady was thinking about after he won the AFC Championship Game. Forget the psychic implications and overall inanity of the question for a moment. Do any of us think about only one thing during any particular span of time? We probably do during great crises or times of grief. During a less intense moment, like a minor-but-significant success in our careers –- that is about what Brady experienced in the AFC Championship Game, by Brady standards –- our minds dart about from in-the-moment decisions to endorphin-fueled moments of satisfaction to whatever preoccupations normally eat up our gray matter. For Brady, it may have gone like this:
"Oh my, he missed that field goal. Splendid! Let me get the guys lined up for the victory formation. Are the correct personnel on the field? Good. I am returning to the Super Bowl. That is wonderful! I wonder who we will face? Probably the 49ers, unless they do something stupid like fumble away a bunch of punt returns. I hope that game does not go into overtime. I want to catch American Idol. Okay, time is up. What should I tell the media about this less-than-stellar performance? Perhaps I will describe it as 'weak by my standards' and 'something I will strive to improve upon.' The bottom of my feet are really itchy. I guess I can call Gisele right after my shower; it isn’t the baby’s naptime. Okay, here comes the television camera. I am dying for one of those cordon bleu burgers. Gosh, I hope Gronk is okay; it looked like he sprained his ankle earlier."
Bruschi’s response was nothing like this.
I spent much of today at the Super Bowl Village, mining weird slice-of-life observations that were then given to the Times, who are paying for me to be here and therefore get first dibs. The NFL Experience was inside the Convention Center, but I tried to avoid the overpriced, touristy event. When I checked in to sit down and use my phone for a minute, however, I heard music to Walkthrough’s ears: "Attention, ladies and gentlemen: Hunter Smith will be performing in Exhibit Hall E."
Former Colts punter Hunter Smith? Performing? That could only mean one thing: the Christian rock stylings of the incomparable Connersvine. I nearly hung up on my wife and raced along past Exhibit Halls A, B, C, and D, then into a wall. Three different security guards pointed me in three different directions. The NFL Experience maps do not mark exhibit halls by letter, which is like creating a road map that does not list routes by number. Somehow, I crossed through the NFL Experience floor, past youngsters kicking field goals and the like, until I found halls G, H, and I. I was running out of alphabet. The fourth security guard went all Sesame Street in her effort to help me. "Let’s see," she said, pointing to the entrances, "that’s G, H, I..." Ah, that was my problem: I was thinking of the Cyrillic alphabet! Thanks so much. All I wanted was to hear half a Connersvine song performed by half of Connersvine.
Then, I heard it. Acoustic guitars. Drums. Nondescript country rock with wholesome lyrics. Smith was on stage! But he was not with Connersvine. Smith’s new band is The Hunter Smith Band, and they were performing tracks from their new CD. The music was less overtly Christian than Connersvine, but Smith hasn’t embraced Satanism or anything. It’s ingratiatingly tepid country rock, full of anthems about hard work and family. A sizeable crowd of Colts fans enjoyed the heck out of it.
Tuesday, 4:45 PM Eastern Time: Indianapolis. Media Day is exactly as useful as we have chosen to make it.
You know the drill with Media Day: the big players are in elevated booths, the small ones litter the field, reporters and broadcasters circle like vultures, nitwits with goofy clothes and gimmicks vie for camera time. Rich Eisen comments with detached bemusement on the NFL Network, and we all try not to think about how ridiculous it is to stab each other with tape recorders as we pepper bored superstars with redundant questions in the hope of soliciting quotes to fit the stories we have already composed in our heads.
It is ridiculous.
If a reporter is patient and prepared, he or she can get a lot out of Media Day. I had several uninterrupted minutes to talk to Henry Hynoski, Niko Koutouvides, and other players. Real stars are also available to those who wait: Doug Farrar talked at length, about strategies and schemes, to Jerod Mayo in the waning minutes of Patriots availability.
Hynoski and Koutouvides are not exactly "gets," but think of what each could provide. Hynoski can answer specific questions about blocking certain players. Koutouvides is in his second Super Bowl and can talk about the 2005 Seahawks. Both could talk about schemes in the general sense without divulging their team’s gameplans. They just need to be properly asked.
Asking scheme questions was not my job at Media Day; I was acting as an awkward-comic interviewer. There are too many of me at Media Day, and worse, too many reporters who have been assigned to file the same old stories in the same old way. There is too much quote harvesting: tell me about Brady, tell me about Eli, tell me about the tight ends, tell me about the front four. There are too many "he’s a heck of a competitor" responses. Media Day needs more Doug Farrars, or at least more of me wearing my other hat. The locusts buzz in and pick the same ten stories clean, and leave a thousand more interesting ones on the vine.
I did a bunch of video spots for the Times, and late on Media Day we tried to shoot a wrap up from a spot near Chris Snee’s booth. The wireless microphone did not work, so a long, thin, cord hung from the video camera to my lanyard. We started rolling, and a VIP whooshed between us, yanking the cord and forcing me to shuffle astride him to keep the microphone or camera from being damaged. The VIP looked aggravated –- how dare the media try to generate media on Media Day –- and dislodged himself gruffly, without apology. We rolled again, and within seconds, another reporter did the exact same thing, dragging me along like a bluefish on a line.
I think the term I am fishing for is "living the dream."
Tuesday, 10:30 PM Eastern: Indianapolis. There’s a media party out at the Brickyard, but I attended Peter King’s Tweet-Up instead, then had dinner with a bunch of guys named Doug Farrar, Bill Barnwell, and Will Carroll, plus a couple of other interesting folks. It was a family reunion of people who worked together but barely ever met. Yahoo, ESPN/Grantland, Sports Illustrated, the Times. Sheesh. None of us could have gotten a credential for a preseason game eight years ago (except Will), let alone the Super Bowl. Thanks, Aaron. Thanks, readers.
The Times videos are up, and I cannot hide the fact that I interviewed Koutouvides about lawn care, and not about 3-4 details. Also, when I get back to Jersey, it’s straight to the gym for me. It is important to note that I was not wearing Under Armour in the videos. The warm weather has foiled Under Armour’s effort to deck reporters out in their cold weather gear. If I were wearing Under Armour, I would have looked svelte and informed.
Indianapolis was lit up like Christmas as I walked to the hotel. There was a dancing light show in Monument Circle, with videos projected off the giant XLVI numerals the league erected in front of the veteran’s memorial. Music, food, lights, families, couples, temperatures in the 50s in the early evening. You can keep the Brickyard. I will take a downtown aglow.
Wednesday, 4:25 PM Eastern: Indianapolis. There are railroad tracks a few blocks from the hotel. There’s a long train rolling along them every time I look out my window. It is like the Island of Sodor.
I am on a different schedule from the rest of the media. While everyone else was at the Bill Belichick press conference and the Patriots media availability, I was strolling through town with the president of the local arts council, his media director, and a Brazilian artist named Artur Silva, discussing the murals that were installed as part of a pre-Super Bowl beautification initiative. Many of the murals are excellent. Not many were painted in the Downtown Public Mural style (pro-social image of multiracial children planting a garden). There are abstracts and mosaics and a 38-foot high photorealistic Kurt Vonnegut, which is the stuff of nightmares in a good way.
Osi Umenyiora missed his media availability today. News! He overslept. A few reporters were hoping that he simply overslept, and not because they were overly concerned about his well-being. No one wants to have to jump on a crazy, complicated, overheated story right now. This snowball is rolling just fine on its own, and we would rather just get smooshed into it and carried into the canyon than deal with any sudden cliffs.
Umenyiora apologized for missing his session. He should get an award for saving trees. At the Super Bowl, players talk endlessly about the same topics. Their wisdom is transcribed. The transcriptions sit on long tables in the media work room. Stacks and stacks of pages, reams and reams of nearly worthless quotes. There are Brady quotes and Coughlin quotes, Kevin Gilbride quotes and BenJarvus Green-Ellis quotes. There are quotes by people you would never think to quote. A hoarder could walk away with a binder full of politely content-less chatter, which could then be stored away to puzzle some insectoid archeologist a thousand centuries from now.
The transcriptions also arrive in my Inbox, in groups of five or ten. Most are deleted immediately. Here is why: a Reading from the Book of Patrick Chung, Chapter Wednesday, Verse Morning, discussing his own secondary:
"Whoever is out there is going to play. Coach (Bill Belichick) has full confidence in whoever he puts out there. The (Giants) have a very good receiving corps. They have three different kinds of receivers that can make big plays. I think we have a good secondary. We match up well. It’s going to be a battle. We have to try and contain them. We can’t stop all three, because they’re that good. We’re going to try and contain them and do the best we can."
Imagine 500 pages of that.
Sometimes, when I sort through our various Football Outsiders spreadsheets, I question the amount of data mining I am performing. Filtering through thousands of plays to determine exactly what the Giants did on third downs in the red zone can be illuminating, or it can turn into a quest for misleading, over-granulated data with no real meaning. But at least I am sifting through real things: real plays, real events, real outcomes. The pass to Victor Cruz happened. Millions of people saw it. It can be discussed tangibly and meaningfully. It is not "we match up well."
So instead I will tell you a story of Silva, the Brazilian muralist who came to Indiana because he is fascinated by the myth of the American heartland, or perhaps because the rent is much cheaper than in New York. Silva is a World Cup soccer fan, and when he got involved in a pick-up soccer game in a park one day, the other players noticed his accent immediately. Silva became the Andrew Luck of pick-up soccer, as both teams coveted the Brazilian (who looks lean and athletic) under the assumption that he would whoop everyone’s butts. The reality? "I sucked," Silva said.
It is great to be able to chuckle at stereotypes. Do things like that happen in other countries? If an American kid walks onto a baseball field in Japan, do they assume that he is Chase Utley incarnate? Whenever I hear someone with an Australian accent, I assume that he is squirrel-poop insane. Does that make me a bad person?
What do you think, Mr. Chung? "It’s go-time. We have four days to get ready for a very good team. (The Giants) are getting ready for a very good team. It’s grind time and it’s time to go hard."
Four days to get ready? Everybody is ready. Everybody is more than ready. Except maybe Osi Umenyiora.
Wednesday, 10:00 PM Eastern: Indianapolis. There is a rumor that I will be facing Drew Brees in XBOX Kinect tomorrow. The Under Armour people also endorse XBOX somehow. XBOX: the second most popular game system in my household! If they have Drew Freakin’ Brees shilling, they have me shilling.
I am also going to a cigar event. And something involving Amani Toomer and an ice sculpture.
Football is the Super Bowl’s absent center. It is the reason for all of this and it is strangely irrelevant. The game is more than, or less than, anticlimactic. This week is about commerce, and lifestyle, and strangely about community. Indianapolis believes that the Super Bowl is about Indianapolis, and the city is right in a way.
This is about an excuse to get together, to overeat, to overspend and overindulge and overwork. The Super Bowl without excess is not the Super Bowl.
I am tired, and I am surrounded by people far more tired. This has been a fascinating NFL season, but they all are. This has been an exciting 12 months for me, and I hope they have been for you. When you next read Walkthrough, in two weeks (or maybe three!) I will be focused and talking about strategy and history again: the travelogues were a temporary necessity, and hopefully an interesting one.
Holy crap, I am covering the Super Bowl!
26 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2012, 11:02am by SEAN DEMPSEY