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Have you ever had that feeling when you show up somewhere, and something is off?  You know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it?  That eerie, sour sense of mystery likely flooded the air circulating through the Dallas Cowboys facility soon after the players arrived early Saturday morning, just hours after the death of one of their teammates.

It was an early wake-up for the Dallas Cowboys as meetings began at the training facility at 7:30am Saturday, with the team plane scheduled to take off for Cincinnati a few hours later, a source close to the team told PepperOnSports.   Once the players separated into groups, it became clear that two guys were missing from their respective meetings, third-year nose tackle Josh Brent, and rookie linebacker, Jerry Brown.  The players began talking amongst themselves, but were told only that there had been an “unfortunate accident,”  and no details were provided by team personnel, according to the source. 

It wasn’t until the team had boarded the charter plane in the afternoon that the players received the bad news from head coach Jason Garrett.  Jerry Brown was killed in a drunk driving accident, and Josh Brent - who was driving when his car flipped at 2:21am after hitting a curb at high speeds - had been arrested for DUI and manslaughter. 

Brent and Brown were on their way home from Privae nightclub in Dallas, where a dozen Cowboys players had spent the evening partying with comedian Shawn Wayans, according to a source close to the team.  The Privae website advertises free entry with an RSVP every Friday and promotes an evening with celebrity guest host Shawn Wayans for December 7.  Most bars and clubs in Dallas close at 2am.  

Not that there is ever a good time to learn that one coworker is dead and another is being blamed for it, but right before a two-and-a-half hour flight, without the comfort of friends or family outside of the office seems like a tough way to receive the news.   When asked about the mood of the players during the flight, the source replied, “silence on the plane.”  That was perhaps the longest flight of those mens’ lives.

(Update: “The team couldn’t immediately reveal the details because Brown’s next-of-kin had not been notified,” according to USA Today)

This takes us back eight days ago, in the wake of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend Kassandra Perkins, before killing himself at Arrowhead Stadium in front of KC’s general manager and head coach.  As of last Friday, there was no precedent in dealing with the murder/suicide carried out by n active NFL player, much less with the suicide happening in front of team personnel at the stadium.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time an active NFL player has died in a car accident during the season.  Atlanta Falcons players Ralph Norwood and Brad Beckman were killed in separate car accidents less than a month apart during the 1989 season.

The Chiefs operated under a microscope last week, every decision and movement dissected by the media.  One can only imagine the level of interest and examination facing the Cowboys, a team whose 6-6 record - now seemingly inconsequential in comparison - is the subject of daily debate on both the local and national level.   It should be interesting to watch the ensuing behavior of frequently scrutinized Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the wake of this tragedy. 

Hopefully the appropriate mental health support will be offered to players and team personnel for the remainder of the season.  One can only imagine the emotional weight the Cowboys will carry with them on to the field Sunday against the Bengals.  

Candid Camera:  NFL Edition

I am a huge fan of pranks.  I even enjoy watching extremely awkward moments, which is probably why Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of my favorite shows.  In the video above, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley sheds his scary-as-hell football persona and gives us a peek of his softer, lighter side, laughable side.  I like. 

Check out the bizarre and at times, cringe-worthy prank Woodley pulls on NFL buddies Steve Breaston, Marcedes Lewis, and Michael Turner.  I’ll give you a hint… it involves solid acting performances, a cross-dressing element, and short shorts.  Everybody wins! 

 
Ten games into the NFL season, I developed a theory.  The Packers were undefeated at 9-0 and the Patriots were 6-3, coming off a big win over the rival New York Jets.  Despite losses to the Bills, Steelers and Giants, I wasn’t really worried about New England as the defense was going through some changes and after all, they got beat by the Browns last season for one of only two losses.  I know that most good teams will lose a few regular season games.  It’s not the end of the world.

Anyway, at that point, ten weeks in, I was certain the Packers and Patriots would meet in Super Bowl XLVI (that’s 46, for those who aren’t well-versed when it comes to roman numerals, myself included).  In my mind, I had the scenario playing out as a Shakespearean drama; The Packers would enter the Super Bowl unbeaten and the Patriots would dash Green Bay’s dreams of achieving a true ultimate undefeated season, a la the 2007 New York Giants.  In the unlikeliest of role reversals, New England would get to experience the agony of defeat, followed by the joy of victory, somewhat avenging the ‘07 loss.  

As you know by now, the freakin’ Kansas City Chiefs, of all teams, went and ruined my soon-to-be-a-disney-movie screenplay, handing the Packers their first loss of the season in week 15.  With my original plan foiled, I moved on to the next best thing which is a Patriots vs. Giants rematch in Super Bowl XLVI.

Barring a literal divine intervention, I predicted the Patriots would beat the Broncos badly…that happened.  While I picked Green Bay to beat the Giants in the NFC, I wrote that this game had the highest probability of an upset and I pointed out a few reasons why I thought the Giants could pull it off.

I think every athlete and fan alike has some form of superstition in relation to sports.  I happen to be a believer in patterns.  For example, lets say the NBA is in the conference finals.  Both higher seeds are 2-0, and in the West, the higher seed wins game three on the road for a 3-0 lead.  Heading into the third game of the Eastern Conference Finals, I would assume the higher seed will also win, taking a 3-0 advantage.  I just have this weird feeling about patterns, equality and mirroring when it comes to sports.  I don’t get that feeling with every game, but it’s just my own little quirk.

Heading into the Giants vs. Packers playoff game, I noticed some examples of this year’s Giants team mirroring the ‘07 team.  

In week 17 of the ‘07 season, a struggling Giants team fell just short of handing the then-undefeated Patriots a colossal upset as New England edged out New York by a final score of 38-35 at the Meadowlands.  Whatever happened that night got the G-Men hot and bothered as they ripped through the playoffs, beating the Bucs in the wild card game and downing the cowboys in Dallas before landing at Lambeau Field to take on Brett Favre and the Packers in the NFC Championship game.  If you recall, head coach Tom Coughlin’s face was a blistery red and it looked like the guy had hypothermia, but alas, he survived, as did  the Giants in overtime.  Brett Favre’s interception in the extra period would be the last pass he ever threw in a Packers uniform.  The Giants went on to beat the Pats in one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time.

Fast forward to this season where the Packers beat the Giants in Jersey in week 13.  The final score?  Cue the eerie music….  Packers 38 Giants 35. Recognize that???  Yep, same score as the Week 17 loss to New England in the ‘07 Super Bowl season.  In 07, the Giants beat a team in the Super Bowl that had beat them six weeks before in the regular season by a score of 38-35.  Just like they did with the Pats back then, the Giants picked off the Packers in the post season five weeks after suffering a 38-35 regular season loss.  See where I’m going with this?  It’s like the Bizarro-Jerry episode of Seinfeld.  Things are the same, yet different, but still the same.  Hmmmm…..

How bout Hakeem Knicks with that David Tyree-like miracle catch as he secured the football using his helmet for a touchdown after Manning’s hail mary pass to end the first half, giving the Giants the lead and a ton of confidence heading into the Lambeau locker room?  It was a copycat of the iconic Tyree catch, just in a different place and time yet with a striking similarity in significance.  Yes, the Tryee catch set up the game winning touchdown in ‘07 while the Nicks catch was a touchdown and at the end of a half, but in my eyes, both plays sucked the life out of the opposition and led to a Giants victory.

Yes, the Patriots defense isn’t close to what it used to be back in the early part of last decade, but the team has won nine straight games, having finally got the first-round-playoff-loss monkey off its back.  As much as I respect the the Ravens (I’ll never forget how they humiliated the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs two seasons ago), New England’s offense is on fire and the defense has held opponents to 27 points or less over the current win streak.  I don’t see the Ravens overcoming the Pats in New England, so I’m pretty positive Belichick, Brady and company will represent the AFC in the Big Game.

That leaves the 49ers and Giants.  I would pick San Francisco in the NFC title game if it didn’t totally destroy my Pats/Giants rematch theory.  Just like they were in ‘07, the Giants are hot.  Yes, it took them a while to warm up against the Packers, but once they got the engine running, that was it! O-V-E-R.  New York’s defense managed to hold the NFL’s best offense to 20 points and watched the Packers turn the ball over four times.  They weren’t perfect, but I think the Giants D is feeling pretty confident right now after dismantling Aaron Rodgers and the Discount Double Check at Lambeau.

Then there is Eli Manning.  He’s like that kid growing up who has a super cool older brother, but gets picked on mercilessly by the other kids in junior high, periodically getting dunked in the toilet for a swirly during lunch time.  I used to be one of those bullies, making fun of him privately, until I watched Eli throughout that 2007 season when I worked for NFL Network.  The man is a damn good quarterback, a nice guy, and he’s a champion.  Period.  

His performance against the Packers was full of extremes.  Manning either had all day to throw the ball, or he was quickly getting drilled, taking several tough hits.  Like in ‘07, his guys came through when it counted.  The O-line, while not perfect, got the job done as did Cruz, Nicks, Manningham, and Bradshaw.  Who needs Burress and Toomer, right?

The Giants beat the Packers in the ‘07 NFC Championship game after losing to them in the regular season.  This season, the Giants lost to the 49ers in the regular season and now get a second shot at them in the NFC title game.  Coincidence?  At this point, I think not.  

For better or worse, I’m a believer in history repeating itself and that’s exactly what appears to be happening in the NFL.  My crystal ball shows the Patriots and Giants, together again, this time in Indianapolis, vying for the Lombardi Trophy and a chance to give us one of the best storylines in NFL history.

 

If you’ve watched the Chiefs at all over the last few years, it’s obvious that something isn’t quite right in Kansas City.  We knew the X’s and O’s were suspect, but the behavior of the front office, as reported by the Kansas City Star, takes this situation to a whole new level of dysfunction. 

In the story written by Kent Babb, information from more than two dozen current and former Chiefs employees paints a picture of paranoia and illegal surveillance of employees by management.

Todd Haley, the former Chiefs head coach who was fired mid-season is quoted in the article, accusing management of bugging rooms in the team facility and tampering with his personal cell phone (that he had before he was hired by KC). 

The article quotes several sources (both anonymously and by name) and a few of them said that while the culture certainly changed once Scott Pioli was hired as the general manager in 2009, that the new rules and regulations weren’t bothersome to them personally.  On the other hand, the majority quoted in the article describe a McCarthy-esque work environment that not only violates personal privacy, but also breaks the law. 

Unless Pioli is an undercover FBI agent posing as a football GM (and by the looks of the Chiefs, that isn’t a stretch) and invoking the Patriot Act, wire tapping without the knowledge of the other party is illegal (in most states).  Babb notes that employee turnover has been through the roof since Pioli was hired and some former staffers are suing the organization.  The following excerpt from Babb’s article is hard to believe:

"Some of the first changes involved shutting off access and protecting information. Non-football employees, including those who had worked for the Chiefs for decades, were told that they weren’t allowed on certain floors, or in certain areas of the team facility. Business-side staffers with an office window facing the practice fields were made to keep their shades drawn during practices. The team president was no exception. A security guard made the rounds during practices, sometimes interrupting phone calls and meetings to lower shades."

Talk about going overboard, right?  Many cited in the article said the intrusive measures were taken to prove which employees were loyal to the team and the cause, and which weren’t.  As one former higher-up told Babb, “The level of paranoia was probably the highest that I had ever seen it anywhere.  If you make the wrong step, you might not be able to pay your mortgage.”

Sure, this all sounds great if its in a science fiction novel, but in real life?  If true, this is scary stuff.  While I am shocked at the depth of the allegations, the general idea isn’t that surprising seeing is that Pioli came from New England and was a part of the infamous Spygate in 2007. 

Pioli, a good friend and longtime coworker of Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for his role in the scandal involving the Patriots stealing signs by secretly video taping the New York Jets coaching staff.  Belichick and the Patriots’ secrecy, gate-keeping and limited access is legendary in the sports world. 

"A common notion is that employees are constantly being watched. When they arrive and leave, where they’re going within the building and who they’re talking to. Indeed, the technology exists at the Chiefs’ offices, as it does in many corporate settings, to monitor phone calls and emails," writes Babb.  "But here, some staffers even hesitated before using their cell phones or speaking inside the building, because, like Haley, they suspected that conversations were monitored."

Former stadium operations director Steve Schneider told Babb, ‘The capability was definitely there for Big Brother to be watching.”

True or not, this story should inspire an even bigger brother to look into the practices of Pioli and the Chiefs management.  I’m guessing the ACLU is already on the case.  You would think with all of the alleged technology, surveillance and attention to detail, that the front office would’ve at least found a way to muster up more than seven wins from its team this season.  Go figure. 

To read more of Kent Babb’s fascinating story about the Chiefs, click this link:  http://www.kansascity.com/2012/01/14/3371495/arrowhead-anxiety-turnover-off.html#storylink=cpy