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Searching for a truly Super team

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Okay, guys. This is your last chance.

You want to go the Super Bowl? Prove that you belong. Frankly, guys, you're running out of time.

We have given you an entire season, and then some. Still, we wait for the mark of greatness. In the NFL, that always happens. Everyone spends eight months talking about parity, and then the big game approaches, and the stars come out.

By now, we are used to it. They throw a Roman numeral behind a game, and suddenly, coaches turn into Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh, and quarterbacks turn into John Elway and Joe Montana. Just like that, we start talking about dynasties and Hall of Fame careers. Legends are uncovered. Lore is created.

So, um, where did all of those guys go?

This is a Final Four? Raiders and Ravens and Vikings and Giants? These are quarterbacks? These are coaches? This is greatness?

Imagine that you are a college bowl representative, one of those guys with the fixed smile and the shiny blazer. Which of these guys gets your invitation to our Super Bowl? Imagine you are Disney World. Which one of these guys do you think the world will follow to your door? Which one of these guys gets Letterman's numbers? Leno's? Madonna's?

What we are talking about here is a lack of star quality. Oh, you have a touch of it in the Minnesota offense, a touch in the Baltimore defense. But look who those guys hang around with. Put the Vikings' defense and the Ravens' offense together, and what you get is the 1976 Bucs.

Denny Green says his Vikings are a "stealth team" that got this far going "under the radar." That's true. What Denny didn't say is that they were crawling over the other three teams named Joe on their way.

I know what you're thinking. Yeah, under the current rules (and I checked them four times), these are the four teams that are still alive and, therefore, fairness says we are required to make a big deal about them. And these are pretty good teams. Then again, they don't call it The Pretty Good Bowl.

You just can't help but think there are about 26 other teams (plus the Browns) who are looking and saying "If the Giants can get there, why can't we?"

"These aren't glamorous teams, are they?" ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said.

Well, no. Ugly stepsisters have invaded the ball. We are looking at two teams filled with rejects and claimers, with players trying to salvage and survive. It leaves you wanting to blame parity, wanting to blame the salary cap, wanting to blame Les Steckel. Whatever.

Usually, it isn't that way. Oh, there is often a team or two like this in the conference title games, and every now and then, one makes the Super Bowl (and is promptly spanked and sent to bed). But if you glance back over the past two decades, you have the mini-runs by Denver and Dallas and San Francisco. You have Jerry Rice and The Hogs and the Shufflin' Bears. This year? You might have to go back to 1982 (the first 49ers championship team and the Bengals) to find two teams the nation knows less about than the two that will come to Tampa.

"If I were watching, I'd probably go: "Who the heck are those guys?' " Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. "We don't necessarily have the biggest names. I would not know what to think. It's not a gambling man's weekend. You don't know who is going to win any of these games."

The truth is that you can't blame these teams for being here. You can blame the ones everyone thought were going to be better for not being here. That's why Peyton Manning will watch Rich Gannon, and Brett Favre will watch Kerry Collins, and Kurt Warner will watch Trent Dilfer. That's why Warren Sapp will watch Fernando Smith, and why Tony Boselli will watch Lomas Brown, and why Sam Madison will watch Wasswa Serwanga (spelled just like it sounds).

"The experts picked the wrong teams," is the way Vikings receiver Cris Carter explains it all. Then he added something else that the Bucs and Colts and Jaguars might take into the off-season.

"It isn't the best team that wins, it's the team that plays best," Carter said. "Some of these other teams lost the fear to lose. They thought they were given the Super Bowl from the preseason publicity and magazines."

You know the funniest thing in sports? It's a team that has been ranked No. 1 all year, that is filled with all-pros or All-Americans, that has gone though an entire season of platitudes, finally winning and then crowing about how no one expected them to do that? Well, we've finally got that team. Whoever it is. This is going to be like Queen for a Day, where the saddest story got the trophy. "We have a quarterback who used to drink. . . ." "Well, we have Dilfer." "We have a quarterback who didn't even work for a year. . . ." and "We have a defense that will make stars out of all of them."

Well, guys, this is your last chance. Final auditions are held today. If you want the part, you've got to be a star. What's that commercial they keep playing until your ears bleed? Show me something? Don't you figure the guy who wrote that, the guy who was seeing nothing, had today in mind?

Shape up, guys. Look sharp.

Otherwise, we might just call off the Super Bowl and all go home.

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