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I already explained how I’m all football, all the time these days (when I’m not talking about important things like soldiers in Iraq), so even Starbucks trips are framed in thoughts of football. So since we’ve already tackled the NFC, it’s time to hand out drinks to all of the AFC teams playing this weekend. Without further ado…

  • Chargers:  Some days you think they’re that special pick me up on a hot day and some days, you think there just isn’t that much substance. But since this team sometimes seems delicious and other times leaves you wanting more, I’m handing them a Coffee Frappuccino Light
  • Titans: Anyone who knows me knows that there is nothing I hate more than an athletic black quarterback. How am I supposed to get googly-eyed about someone like that? So in honor of a team captained by Vince Young, I’m giving them my least favorite Starbucks drink. A drink that makes no sense and tastes terrible: the Orange Mocha. Take that!
  • Jaguars: This is a cold weather team trapped in a warm weather body. They have the power, the panache, the substance and the all-American style I’ve come to love. So, I’m giving them a warm strong drink trapped in the cold weather iced category: the Iced Caffe Americano.
  • Steelers: They’re barely removed from their superbowl victory, they’re an underdog at home and people are giving them no respect. But they’ve got some underrated style and a flair for a little creativity. Call me crazy, but i’m going Vanilla Latte on this one. A solid underrated drink for a solid team.

So there you have it. Now when you think Starbucks you think NFL playoffs and when you think NFL playoffs, you think Starbucks. See, there’s been a method to my coffeenerdness madness all along!

See More: NFC STYLE

Since the NFL playoffs are the only thing on my mind these days, I couldn’t help but look at the Starbucks menu and think of each team. So in honor of the playoffs, I’m dedicating a drink to each team!
 
  • Redskins: They’re a success story that didn’t really kick off until December and then it was all anyone wanted. They have the bittersweet element (Sean Taylor RIP), so this one is pretty much a no-brainer: the Egg Nog Latte
  • Seahawks: This team is pure Seattle. There’s nothing too spectacular about them, but they’re a vintage roast. So Seattle, have this grande original coffee on me!
  • Bucs:  In the warm weather town of Tampa, we need to pay homage to the weather. But this is also a flavorful and resourceful bunch with the added kick of a little Jon Gruden. They’re getting the Iced Caramel Macchiato
  • Giants:  From Tiki to the softening of Coach Coughlin to Eli to Brandon Jacobs doing a Christian Okoye impersonation, this team has been nearly impossible to read and impossible to predict all season. So handing them a tasty beverage is no easy task. But for a Starbucks veteran like myself, there is a similar feeling whenever you’re standing in a long line of lattes, iced coffees and caffe americanos and then some unpredictable joker steps to the counter and orders a drink that is solid, but seems out of place. One that has earned its spot on the Starbucks menu, yet seems like it’s a horse of a different color. One that seems to have all the right pieces (flavor, substance, originality), but something is missing. Ladies and Gentlemen, the New York Giants are a….Chai Tea Latte!

Enjoy the playoffs, I’ll hand out some AFC drinks later this week.  

Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

NEW YORK — Once upon a time, way back in 2000, New England owner Bob Kraft swam against the tide and hired a 47-year-old coach, Bill Belichick, who brought along a trusted friend with a knack for picking players, Scott Pioli, 34, to run the personnel side of the team.

Pioli would scout and prepare the free-agent and draft lists with his staff, and do contracts, while Belichick would coach and pick the players … with the financial and moral support of Kraft.

The Patriots were $10 million over the cap then, and their top-rated free agent at an important position was a terrific young tackle, Jon Runyan. Nope, Belichick said; we’re not going to further screw up our bloated cap by signing the richest tackle in football. So the Patriots bit the bullet in 2000 and 2001, trying to get better through the draft ( Tom Brady came in 2000, Richard Seymour and Matt Light in ’01).

I always get flack from people for pointing out how Brady was an example of a great pick the Patriots made. They say, “He was a sixth-rouder. It’s a crap shoot!” That’s pure ignorance. Every single pick in the every single-Pioli/Belichick draft is pre-planned (if not pre-ordained). If they got word that the Rams were going to take Brady with the 198th pick, they would have traded up for him. I have that on high authority. 

Then they took a very interesting gamble in 2001. One of their best young defensive players, tackle Chad Eaton, was a free agent, and the Pats let him go seek his fortune. Eaton signed with Seattle for a bonus of $3.5 million. The Patriots signed 20 mid- to low-roster veteran free agents for of $2.57 million in signing bonuses that spring.

Oops! Just caught a copy error in that paragraph. If anyone else notices, you can send it along todotcomeditor@si.com

Of course, the Patriots won the Super Bowl that season, with 16 of those free agents playing in an upset win over St. Louis. Mike VrabelAntowain Smith Roman Phifer and Larry Izzo were among them. In the spring of 2002, New England was the only defending Super Bowl champion in the first nine years of free agency to enter the next season under the salary cap.

Should I have noted that their highest paid player, Drew Bledsoe, was cut before the season? Should I have mentioned that had Bledsoe not been injured, not only would the Patriots probably have been closer to the previous year’s 5-11 than 2001′s 11-5, but they would have been significantly over the cap going into 2002? Should I have noted that the Drew Bledsoe injury is the main reason they had the flexibility to sign so many mid-level free agents, only a few of whom worked out? I thought it sorta takes away from the point of the story, right, so why include it?

After that 2002 Super Bowl game, I told Belichick at the Patriots’ team party, “You’ve just given a blueprint to every team in the NFL — draft well, find a quarterback and fill in all the cracks through middle- and lower-class free-agency.”

“I know,” he said.

Six years later, teams still don’t follow the blueprint. I don’t get it.

Especially the part about finding a quarterback. What don’t teams understand about finding diamonds in the rough at the QB position? It’s the single easiest thing to do in football. Look at Derek Anderson. Look at Tony Romo. I don’t get it! 

***

Football’s the ultimate team sport. Isn’t that what we always hear owners, GMs and coaches say? The Browns are contending today because they rebuilt their offensive line ( Joe ThomasEric Steinbach) and handed a former sixth-round pick (Derek Anderson) the reins at quarterback.

You don’t think Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel knew when he drafted Anderson that he had a future franchise QB? 

The Packers are contending today because a soft-spoken general manager (Ted Thompson) hired the offensive coordinator of the worst offense in football (Mike McCarthy, San Francisco) and let him coach his way.

I lost my train of thought here, I think. 

The Steelers are contending today, at least in part, because progressive owners (the Rooneys) hired a precocious, Noll-like 34-year-old coach (Mike Tomlin) with a big upside.

I guess I’m using the term contending pretty loosely here. 

Dallas has a third-time-is-the-charm rookie head coach (Wade Phillips) and a quarterback (Tony Romo) whose rights cost them $10,000 four years ago.

I might be making the case that it’s easier to find a franchise coach than a QB, now? 

Jacksonville is contending today because of a strong defense, a two-headed running game ( Fred TaylorMaurice Jones-Drew) and a longtime backup quarterback (David Garrard) playing better than the high-first-round star quarterback (Byron Leftwich) ever did.

With guys like Garrard, Anderson and Romo, you just knew that they were being groomed from the time they made the practice squad as a tight end. 

Why is Tampa Bay running away with the NFC South? Key guys: undrafted quarterback (Jeff Garcia), undrafted running back (Earnest Graham), ancient receiver on his third team (Joey Galloway).

Defense made up of perennial Pro Bowlers, too. A young, fiery coach with a Super Bowl ring, too. Easiest schedule and division in football, as well. 

That’s not every team, obviously. But if Dallas and New England meet in the Super Bowl, it will be a battle of coaches who are on their third and second jobs, respectively, starring a free-agent bumpkin from Eastern Illinois at quarterback for one team and a quarterback for the other picked after  Spergon Wynn in sixth round of the 2000 draft. The personnel czars would be Pioli and 38-year-old Dallas vice president of college and pro scouting Jeff Ireland. Those guys are barely household names in their own households.

In fairness to myself, you’d really have to have been to Jeff Ireland’s house to understand that joke. It’s killer. 

(To be fair, Dallas owner Jerry Jones has the final say on the draft and in free agency and has had a smart season. Jones deserves a couple of pats on the back for ignoring geniuses like me who told him paying underachieving ex-Cardinal tackle  Leonard Davis big dough to play guard was stupid. Now Davis, deservedly, is going to the Pro Bowl.)

And I don’t use the term “genius” loosely. 

Atlanta was stunned by the  Bobby Petrino fiasco, and the team’s first reaction was to go after Bill Cowher. Didn’t work. Second reaction: Go get Bill Parcells. No go. Third reaction: Pursue Marty Schottenheimer , from all indications. That may happen.

Another copy editor mishap! Stu, it was “ Third reaction: Pursue Marty Schottenheimer. F rom all indications, that may happen.” Dolt. 

Miami was stunned by the Nick Saban fiasco 11 months ago, and owner  Wayne Huizenga – after going from Jimmy Johnson and his heirs to Dan Marino to Saban and not winning a Super Bowl — went the lesser-light route. Coach Cam Cameron and GM Randy Mueller  were going to embark on a long-term plan to rebuild the team. Huizenga gave the new plan 13 games before jetting to upstate New York for another big fish. Or Big Tuna. Parcells.

You won’t find me criticizing Huizenga for hiring Parcells, who has improved every team he’s inherited. Once he finds the right quarterback, Parcells will improve this team, too.

He’d be doing himself a favor by sticking with Cleo Lemon or John Beck – they fit the profile for success. 

But I will criticize the NFL ethos of always looking for the star. The other day, someone said to me, “Well, the Ravens’ lousy year is really going to screw Rex Ryan‘s chance for a job.” My reaction: For God’s sakes, why? Why should one of the two or three best defensive coordinators in the NFL, and a forceful personality too, be eliminated from consideration for a head-coaching job because his team got destroyed by injuries and a lousy offense?

My reaction was logical and logic doesn’t play in the League. But, I also invoked God’s name, which plays quite well. 

A prominent GM told me the other day that college athletic directors are often concerned when they hire a new coach about “winning the press conference.” Sometimes, he said, friends in college administration make hires they know will be popular with alums and fans rather than hiring the best men for the job. He says the same thing happens in pro football.

You should have seen Mark Duper’s reaction to the Cameron hire. Not good. 

“People in dire straits do what is expedient to get themselves out of dire straits as quickly as possible,” the GM said. “Hiring a name gives them hope because it gives the fans and the organization hope.”

Obviously, I had thought the same thing. I’m sure you and all of your frat brothers thought the same thing, too. It’s pretty obvious, right? But I really felt this point needed the force of a quote from an unnamed GM to drive it home. 

***

In baseball, youth has been served in front offices since the turn of the century. Wisely in the cases of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, Yankees GM  Brian Cashman, Indians GM Mark Shapiro and the Diamondbacks’ Josh Byrnes. There’s no reason why youth shouldn’t have the same chance in football. The names of the young turks who should be at the top of the list for rebuilding franchises:

1. Scott Pioli, 42, New England. Smart. Ready, if he ever chooses to leave his good friend Belichick’s side, which he’ll likely have to do if he ever wants to have his football acumen recognized.

He’ll never get the credit he deserves in New England. I mean, seriously, has anyone outside to the cadre of football writers every heard of this guy? Ann Killion, who covers the 49ers for the San Jose Mercury News, looked at me like I had three eyes when I brought up Pioli’s name in conversation. And they say there’s an East Coast Bias. 

2. Chris Polian, 35, Indianapolis. Working under his prominent dad, Bill, Polian has risen to vice president of football operations and tried to learn lessons from top baseball execs. Tough and precocious.

He’s also adorable. 

3. Jeff Ireland, 38, Dallas. Thorough and ultra-prepared, with a reasoned opinion about every player he scouts. Unemotional and methodical.

A little more insight to why Mr. Ireland might not be a household name in his own house. 

 

***

The next question is who Parcells will go after to build his new organization. That decision might lead to some trouble. When Huizenga hired Parcells, the owner said, “Anything that has anything to do with football, directly or indirectly, reports to Bill. That includes doctors and trainers and everything. Everybody is going to report to him.”

Look. I know that I spent the first 2 pages of this web column campaigning for no-names at the QB, Coach and GM positions. But, hey, I’m as much of a starf*cker as the next guy (really, that’s the only word). 

Well, unless a front-office executive Parcells might consider hiring has his contract expire with his current team at the end of this year, or the guy is currently working without a contract (not altogether uncommon in the personnel business), Parcells might have a fight on his hands to woo a top personnel executive.

The NFL rule is that if a front-office man does not have control over the draft and free agency, and he is being offered a job with that final football authority, then his team would be obligated to allow him to interview if permission were requested.

Will that apply in Miami? Maybe.

Teams are notoriously stingy when it comes to their executives’ right to further their career. Wikipedia it.  

There’s a good chance that if Dallas’ Jones were asked by Miami for permission to speak with Ireland, he might say (as might any smart-thinking NFL executive), “Hold on here. Why should I allow my top personnel man to go somewhere where he might have the title of GM, but we all know he wouldn’t be free to make the final football decisions?” In other words, Parcells might say his GM is free to make those kinds of decisions, but it would be up to the league to determine whether a new hire would really have that kind of authority.

I know, it’s just the kind of soap opera we need in the time of Michael Vick and Pacman Jones, but get ready, people. 

I spoke with Parcells twice about this on Sunday. The first time, I told him what I thought — that a team with a good personnel guy might challenge the Dolphins’ ability to hire that personnel guy with the promise of giving him final football authority, because they would say Parcells is the real final football voice.

“That’s not the way it is,” he said from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “We set it up so the general manager I hire will have that authority. I want to make it clear: I don’t want to be the general manager. I don’t want to be the head coach. I told Wayne that very clearly. I don’t think it will be an issue.”

A few minutes later, Parcells called back. “You got me thinking,” he said, “so I got my contract out. I wanted to be sure about the wording.”

*I* got Parcells thinking. For all my detractors, I really am a genius. Ask Parcells, a certified genius, who I got thinking. 

Then he read me the wording of what he said were the applicable clauses in the contract. “‘As Executive Vice President of Football Operations,’” Parcells read, “‘employee shall be responsible for overseeing the club’s football operations. Employee shall act as club designee for purpose of [executing] contracts with head coach and general manager.’”

Said Parcells: “So what I am is the owner’s designee. My job is to hire a coach, hire a GM and put a structure in place for them to operate.”

Will the league buy that? As I said on NBC last night, I believe there’s a good chance some team might bring a grievance against the Dolphins over this.

Olbermann told me later that night that he thinks this is a story that has no legs, and is completely media-driven, or, more specifically, me-driven. I told him he shoulda stuck with the mustache. 

“I’m not worried about it,” Parcells said.

We’ll see who’s worried when you try to steal Jeff Ireland from the ‘Boys. That was a double-entendre that no one outside of Ireland’s wife, dog and myself will get. 

Clearly, the league could be skeptical about allowing any front-office man currently under contract to leave for a GM job in Miami the way it’s structured right now. I could see NFL executive VP and legal counsel  Jeff Pash asking Huizenga, with a jaundiced eye: “You’re paying Bill Parcells $3 million a year or so, and you’re telling me you want to hire someone to have final football authority in the organization over him? That’s not going to fly.”

Reason #3902 I love writing this column: I can reveal little tidbits like Jeff Pash’s jaundice that we all suspect is due to years of alcoholism. 

Remember, though, that if a personnel man is working without a contract, or if his team allows him permission to leave (which I could see happen with the gentlemanly Packers and good-soldier Schneider, if Miami were interested), the Dolphins would be allowed to interview that candidate.

It’s way too early to predict what will happen in Miami. An educated guess would be that Parcells aims for a strong personnel man, then interviews a slew of NFL assistants — and not just those he knows — to be the new head coach. It wouldn’t surprise me if he went for a smart, malleable, egoless, unknown type — like Dallas assistant head coach  Tony Sparano– as his new coach.

A patsy. I should have just said it. He’s looking for a patsy. 

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BRUCETON, Tenn. — “Ladies and gentleman,” the Northwest flight attendant intoned last Wednesday evening, “our scheduled flight time from New York to Memphis today is two hours and 39 minutes. And if you’re one of our valued WorldPerks members, you’ll be credited with 986 miles for this flight.”

Intoned! Look at me, just throwing my vocabulary around.

That’s when it hit me: My God, George Martin has walked this. All of it.

You may remember Martin as a 14-year New York Giant, an athletic defensive end who had a few moments of fame, including his sack of John Elway just before halftime of Super Bowl XXI; the safety started the G-men on a run of 26 unanswered points that opened the door to a 39-20 win. Martin is doing something slightly more important now.

I know what you’re saying, What’s more important that football? And I know why you’re saying it, ’cause you spent Monday Morning reading a column, albeit a very good one, about football. Well, let me rain on your parade a little – saving lives is slightly more important than football.

Martin began walking from New York to San Francisco in September, and on Thursday, with me and an HBO crew in tow, he walked the 1,000th mile of his trip just outside this little town. (You can see a profile of Martin’s walk Wednesday night on HBO’s Inside the NFL show. You can even see me keeping up with him for all of Thursday’s 18 miles. And let me tell you, the man can walk.)

And I know this because I, too, can walk. I lost a ton of weight in recent years. See that picture? That’s me, svelte. I don’t know about the pants George is wearing though. Good cause, bad pants, big fella.

Peter King, right, joins former New York Giants DE George Martin, left, for a portion of Martin's 3,300-mile walk to raise money for first-responders to Ground Zero.

Martin is walking to raise money and awareness for the mental and physical health problems that first-responders to the terrorist attacks at Ground Zero have suffered. Martin has raised $1.5 million of his $10 million goal; matching donors at three New York-area hospitals will boost the count to $3 million. Approximately 40,000 firefighters, police, EMS and volunteers have been affected by the inhalation of toxic contaminants from the pulverized buildings — and have contracted lung disease and even cancer — because most worked without protective masks. Even worse, some of those workers don’t have health insurance, and a majority have inadequate health insurance to deal with the onslaught of new treatments they must use to stave off disease. At least eight first-responder deaths, including one of a nun, have been directly connected to Ground-Zero poisoning.

You might ask who I’m going to vote for in the Republican Primary. Well, not Giuliani, that’s for sure, because he hasn’t championed this cause, leaving real champions like George Martin to pick up the slack. Not McCain either, because he’s a little too old for the job. Not Romney, because Mormons give me the willies. Not Thompson because the actor-turned-President has been done already – and done so well. Not Huckabee because he lacks the foreign policy experience to be president. And not one of the members of the lunatic fringe, like Ron Paul, Mike Gravel or Tom Tancredo. So…

“Have you watched film of that day?” Martin asked when we met on this morning. “Watch the scenes of all the people running from the site. Thousands of them. Then watch the people who are actually running toward the site, and watch the firefighters running into the buildings

“It astounds me. It’s so counter-intuitive. But have we forgotten the events of that horrible day? Have we grown tired of the aftermath? If so, shame on us. When the first fatality came, it barely caused a whimper in the media. But I was touched deeply.”

Me too. But I haven’t forgotten, not this American. That’s why I’m proud to announce that I will be supporting the President of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, in the Republican Primaries. And you should, too. Short of walking 3,300 miles, its the best way to show that you haven’t forgotten. I just think he’ll be tough on terrorism.

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The Real Thing: On my trip to Tennessee last week, I realized one thing: the weakness of the coffee would kill me if I lived there. Nothing against the Maxwell House name, and I’m sure it is fine coffee for people used to it, but the curse of getting used to dark coffee is that the milder Colombian stuff just doesn’t get the job done.

Roger Clemens Steroids

I was picking up a venti chai non-fat extra hot mocha latte this morning before getting to the studio to tape Inside the NFL when the Clemens news broke. Far be it for me to inject my moral judgment into this debate, but am I the only one who is sad to see Clemens on the list? Maybe I’m a Red Sox fan, but nothing means more to me than using my bully pulpit to take circumstantial evidence to indict people (like Bonds) for years while allowing Clemens to go off scott free. Having him named really takes so much of the fun out of my grand gestures of moralizing. Oh well, at least the Packers have another game this Sunday!

Here are my REAL thoughts on football this week.

NEW YORK — “And the legend grows,” Eddie George said just after 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon at the NBC studios, staring up at the nine-television wall the crew members of NBC’s Football Night in America fixate on every Sunday during the NFL season.

The legend of Tony Romo, he meant. George, a former Heisman Trophy winner, was in town for Saturday night’s Tebowfest and stayed over to visit with his good buddy Jerome Bettis and to see how our show is put together. He saw a little drama — the 16-yard Romo-to-Jason Witten touchdown that saved the Cowboys’ bacon in a 28-27 win at Detroit, the Chargers rebounding from a 17-3 deficit with 10 minutes left at Tennessee to win in overtime and the Giants clinching a playoff berth despite New York running back Brandon Jacobs trying desperately to give the Eagles a chance — in an otherwise pedestrian Week 14 Sunday of football.

I’ll be honest. I really dislike when people other than Bob, Bus, Tiki and Cris and some various crew members are in the nine-television room on Sundays with me. I like Eddie, sure. Very good player, could have been great, real nice guy, but seriously, does he have to talk so much? Eddie was waxing not-so-poetic on everything from why Darren McFadden was the Real Heisman winner to why Mike Huckabee is going to win the Republican nomination. Finally, I turned to him and said, “Eddie, if I put you in MMQB, will you pleeeaase Shut Up?!” There was a deafening silence, followed up by uproarious laughter from everyone in the room, Eddie included. Needless to say, that was the end of the Eddie George show.

The story of the day might be the Patriots re-establishing their mojo in crushing one of their last obstacles to perfection … and how fresh they might be heading into the last 19 days of their regular season. I’ll get to that, and to the headlines of the day, in a few paragraphs. But I want to lead with a cautionary tale for the owners — you know who you are, Wayne Huizenga and others — thinking about their coaches of the future.

This is my favorite thing to do. I love to help people out. It always leads to all those phone calls about hiring ME to be their GM or coach, but all you owners – Huizenga et al. – I’m not available.

I’d like to see owners stop looking for the miracle cure when they pick a coach. I’ve got proof it doesn’t work. Since 2000, by my count, NFL teams have hired seven big-money geniuses (average salary per year: $4.3 million) to take their teams to the promised land.

The Magnificent Seven: Nick Saban(Miami), Steve Spurrier (Washington),Dick Vermeil (Kansas City), Dennis Green (Arizona), Bill Parcells (Dallas), Joe Gibbs (Washington) and Bobby Petrino (Atlanta). They have coached a combined 21 years with those teams. Playoff appearances in those 21 years: 4. (It’s mathematically possible to be five this year, if the 6-7 Redskins run the table and get some help.)

Why did I picked these guys and not other well-paid coaches who lead their teams to lengthy playoff berths, super bowl appearances and championships? I wasn’t cherry-picking, as I’ve often been accused. I have good reasons for all.

Gruden? Too Young. Didn’t make enough money. So, it doesn’t matter that he was a big-name hire who won a Super Bowl. He’s never been in Petrino’s class.

Dungy? Didn’t make enough money. Doesn’t matter that his annual salary when he signed his Indianapolis deal in 2002 was higher than Dennis Green’s deal signed in 2005 or that he was a coach with a pretty impressive resume. That’s not what this was about.

Holmgren? Uh, uh, wait a sec! You didn’t read the rules. I said since 2000. Holmgren was hired in ’99. Last Millennium! The game has changed since then, big time.

Playoff wins in those 21 years: 1. Championship Game appearances: 0. Super Bowl appearances: 0. Gibbs won the playoff game with Washington, 17-10 over Tampa Bay in January 2006. Parcells made the playoffs in two of his four Dallas seasons. Vermeil had the other playoff season, a one-and-done job in 2003 with the Chiefs. One playoff win by the geniuses in 21 years.

Also, I’m purposely not including other things that happened in previous millennia, like Parcells getting two big contracts and being tasked with turning a team around – and succeeding. Or Vermeil getting a big money contract to coach his second team, losing his quarterback and then riding a supermarket bagger to a Super Bowl Title. Or Joe Gibbs winning three championships over the course of 9 years with three different quarterbacks. Ancient history.

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