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Wilbon: Monday Night Classic


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Monday Night Classic

By Michael Wilbon

Wednesday, October 8, 2003; Page D01


Shame on you if you went nighty-night early on Monday, if you are on the Kornheiser bedtime plan and nodded off before midnight because there was no way the Colts were going to come back from 21 down against arguably the best defense in football. Shame on you because all you missed was the greatest four minutes in "Monday Night Football" history, maybe even NFL history.

Highlights will never do it justice.

Like all of you who went to bed because you thought the game was over at 35-14 when Ronde Barber took an interception the other way, the Bucs' defensive players must have been getting a little sleepy, too. It was late, they were up three touchdowns, probably bored to tears, and the Colts were generating nothing.

But the Colts kept playing. The Buccaneers were putting on their jammies and waiting for their hot cocoa. Next thing you know, there's a 90-yard kick return, a Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison touchdown pass, a sand wedge of an onsides kick recovery, another long pass to Harrison, overtime, a bogus penalty against the Colts, a missed Indy field goal, a bogus penalty against the Bucs, and a second-chance bank shot off the right upright to give the Colts the game, 38-35.

It ended breathlessly at 12:59 a.m. with Jon Gruden snarling and Tony Dungy shrugging matter-of-factly after receiving about the best birthday/homecoming present he could ask for, with the Colts undefeated and the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers a shocking 0-2 at home.

The evening certainly could have ended earlier for Keyshawn Johnson, who while wearing a microphone before and during the game, ran his yap about how Harrison catches only short passes, about how Harrison isn't as good as he is, blah, blah, blah.

Truth is, as we were reminded Monday, Harrison may be the receiver a coach and quarterback would want most with the game on the line. He doesn't have Randy Moss's range and athletic ability or Terrell Owens's size and explosion. But Harrison, who caught 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs, is a better teammate than Owens and more dependable than Moss. And maybe Keyshawn should take note of this: in the last 21/2 seasons, Johnson has caught six touchdown passes to Harrison's 32. Hey, Key: Shhhhhhhhhh!

The only thing Moss, Owens and Johnson do more of is call attention to themselves. And now that the Colts have a defense and Manning playing as well as any quarterback in the league (first in touchdowns and passing rating), Harrison might be able to remain quiet and yet be noticed.

The NFL didn't get off to the greatest start, what with Michael Vick and Chad Pennington going down before the season, and the Raiders going down, period. But five weeks into the season, more than a few curious story lines have developed:

The Vikings and Panthers and Colts being undefeated, Dante Hall of the Chiefs is threatening to become the first special teams player to be league MVP since Redskins kicker Mark Moseley in 1982, the Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East.

The big shocker has to be the Vikings being 5-0. And the big reason they're 5-0 is not Moss; the Vikings always score points. It's Mike Tice's offseason commitment to getting better defensively. And guess who's coordinating that defense? George O'Leary, that's who. Tice gave O'Leary, his former high school coach, a gig and O'Leary has repaid him by putting together an aggressive defense that's allowing only 16 points per game. An injury to Daunte Culpepper could have undermined the whole thing, except Gus Frerotte has come off the bench to throw the sweetest alley-oop passes since Magic Johnson.

The second-biggest surprise? No, not Carolina. It was evident John Fox had a good defense with the potential to be really, really good. And now that he has Stephen Davis, the Panthers are happy to play head-knocking, old-school football. I'm not saying the Redskins made the wrong move in letting Davis go, because Trung Canidate/Ladell Betts/Rock Cartwright/Chad Morton has been a very nice fit for what Steve Spurrier wants to do. But Davis is averaging 27 carries and 141 yards a game, which puts him on pace for 2,200 yards. As clutch as Dante Hall has been, he touches the ball about 20 fewer times per game than Davis.

No, the second biggest surprise is the first-place Cowboys. It isn't just that they're better, they're this much better with pretty much the same cast that went 5-11 two straight years. Nobody with a straight face would have predicted that one-quarter of the way into the season Dallas would have the No. 1-ranked offense in the league and the No. 3-ranked defense.

Quincy Carter has a higher passer rating than Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Tommy Maddox, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb. That, ladies and gentlemen, is coaching (the same reason that the previously wildly inaccurate Jake Plummer is now the fifth-ranked passer in the NFL behind Manning, Steve McNair, rookie Byron Leftwich and Brad Johnson.). With Bill Parcells, it was a matter of when, not if, but it's insane that the Cowboys look so together and so polished this quickly.

It's too bad the officiating hasn't been up to the level of play in so many instances. I've got a word for the "leaping" penalty called in overtime against Simeon Rice on Monday night: stupid. He didn't use teammates to propel himself in the air. The rule should be changed the moment the season ends. It's a dumber rule than the tuck rule, dumber than the rule that says if you take three steps inbounds after catching a pass but fumble as you fall out of bounds, the pass is incomplete.

The one thing the NFL does so much better than the other professional sports, particularly baseball, is tweak things. The "leaping" rule doesn't need tweaking, though, it needs to be eliminated if it can't be applied with common sense. Who has ever blocked a kick without jumping or attempting to jump? A bit of common sense would have told the offended zebra that Rice didn't run and leap off the back of a teammate. He simply landed on the ground and fell forward into teammates being blocked back. Not only that, but the call moved the Bucs so much closer that Mike Vanderjagt made the field goal by banking it in, depriving us of a few more minutes of one of the wildest games ever.

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