Everything but a Hollywood Ending
Week 1 Featured a Marquee Matchup and Glamorous Fans -- and Foreshadowed Trouble Ahead

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The NFC East is made up of four of the league's wealthiest and most tradition-laden franchises, and 2006 was expected to remind fans of the glory years when its teams won seven of 10 Super Bowl titles. After examining how these teams earned their money and how they spent some of that money in the offseason before the 2006 season, their ultimately unsatisfying results in 2006 can be interpreted as a referendum on how well their player-related decisions worked out. The owners were coming off a tumultuous offseason in which labor negotiations pitted the "have" franchises against the "have-nots," and they had a new commissioner, Roger Goodell, which inevitably led to some uncertainty over the future of the league. But as the 2006 season got under way, NFC East owners Daniel Snyder of the Redskins, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Jeffrey Lurie of the Eagles and John Mara of the Giants were confident their respective general managers and coaches had assembled teams ready to make a run at a Super Bowl title.

Sept. 10: East Rutherford, N.J.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning walked off the Giants Stadium field a few hours before kickoff on opening night. He'd finished his pre-pregame warmup, his early workout with wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne to begin to loosen up and make sure they were all properly in sync. Manning passed the goal post and was headed toward the tunnel leading under the stands to the locker rooms. He noticed the fuzzy outline of a person walking past him; he wasn't really paying attention.

Then he suddenly refocused and realized who it was.

It was Eli.

It struck Peyton then: He was playing an NFL game against his brother.

It was an NFL first, brothers starting against one another at quarterback. It had been discussed and promoted ad nauseam for months. Peyton had answered dozens, perhaps hundreds, of questions about it, but he'd given stock answers and hadn't really contemplated how it would feel to share the field with Eli.

Now he found himself surprisingly caught up in it all. He watched Eli during warmups and peeked at him during the national anthem. He thought the whole thing was neat.

"That's my little brother over there," he said to himself.

The NFL had given NBC the highly attractive "Manning Bowl" as the opening Sunday night game of the season. The NFC East had gotten off to an uneven start that afternoon. The Eagles gave a splendid performance and won at Houston. Donovan McNabb threw three touchdown passes, and Donte Stallworth had six catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. Who needed Terrell Owens?

The Cowboys had been undone by three interceptions thrown by Drew Bledsoe and had lost at Jacksonville. Owens played well in his Cowboys debut, catching six balls for 80 yards and a touchdown, but Bledsoe was indecisive and missed throws he should have made. Flozell Adams didn't play well at left tackle. Shaun Suisham kicked in place of injured kicker Mike Vanderjagt, acquired as a free agent in the offseason from Indianapolis, and sent a 36-yard field goal try off the right upright. That led Owens to launch into a screaming rant at no one in particular on the sideline.

"T.O., you're a cancer!" a Jaguars fan yelled at him as he left the field.

"Yep," Owens replied.

It was up to the Giants to give the NFC East a winning record for the day -- the Redskins didn't play until the next night. Peyton Manning got the best of the Giants early as the Colts built a 13-0 lead. The Colts were abusing cornerback Sam Madison, and the Giants were dropping potential interceptions. But Eli Manning got things revved up and led the Giants back into the game. He threw touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey, and the Giants trailed by only 23-21 when he connected with Tim Carter for a first down with just more than four minutes left. But Carter was penalized for offensive pass interference for a phantom push-off. Tom Coughlin went nuts on the sideline, but it didn't matter. The bad call wasn't subject to an instant replay review. Instead of having a first down and all the momentum, the Giants faced a third and 11 from their 9-yard line. Manning threw a floating pass that was intercepted, leading to Adam Vinatieri's fourth field goal of the night for the Colts. The Giants ran out of time on their last-gasp drive.

On the field, Peyton told Eli he loved him and was proud of how he'd competed.

"Good game," Eli replied. "It's your win."

Eli had taken a pregame picture with his brother and was happy the whole thing had happened but disappointed with his late interception. The most drained member of the Manning family, however, was their father, Archie. Together with Olivia, the matriarch of the Manning family, he had watched the game from the Reebok corporate box, and it had been tough. By night's end, all the emotion had been wrung out of them.

"I'm glad we don't have to go through this for a few more years," Olivia said as she and Archie stood near the Giants' locker room late that night. She quickly added, "I guess I'd take it if they managed to get to a Super Bowl together." Peyton's chances to hold up his end of that bargain looked better than Eli's.

Sept. 11: Landover, Md.

Tom Cruise wasted no time taking up his new business partner, Daniel Snyder, on the offer to attend a game. He and his wife, Katie Holmes, were in town for the Redskins' opener.

Cruise brought along his 13-year-old daughter, Isabella, his 11-year-old son, Connor, and his nearly 5-month-old baby girl with Holmes, Suri. The Cruises stayed at the Snyders' home in Potomac. On the Sunday evening before the Monday night game, the two families thought about going out bowling but then had a better idea. They went to the Six Flags park near the stadium, joined by Redskins Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato and his wife and kids, and Mark Shapiro, the Six Flags chief executive, who was installed after Snyder took control of the theme park company in 2005.

They had the park to themselves: They rode roller coasters and bumper cars and ate pizza, chicken fingers, ice cream and funnel cakes. Park workers stayed late and staged a closing ceremony. Snyder and Cruise led the kids in dancing the electric slide and the limbo.

Afterward, the families headed to FedEx Field. The kids threw footballs on the field underneath the stadium lights, and the adults sat on the turf and watched the end of the Giants-Colts game on the huge stadium screen.

Snyder went to the stadium early Monday ahead of traffic and ate a hot dog and two hamburgers in the owner's box. He went into a bathroom; he got nervous on game days and felt sick to his stomach. Cruise took Holmes and his two older children to the game but left Suri with a babysitter. They rode to the stadium with Snyder's wife, Tanya, and got stuck in Beltway traffic. They would be joined at the game by actor Jamie Foxx.

At 5:40 p.m., an hour and a half before kickoff, Snyder stood on the field and talked to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. Music blared over the stadium's public address system. ESPN had nearly three dozen cameras in place for its first Monday night broadcast.

The night had a big event feel to it. Redskins minority owner Dwight Schar came over and joined the conversation. Underneath the stands, in the tunnel leading from the Redskins' locker room to the field, Antwaan Randle El, fellow wide receiver James Thrash and running back Rock Cartwright slapped each other on the shoulder pads. A Redskins staffer who'd been with the team through several coaching regimes watched some of Joe Gibbs's assistants walk by and said: "The stress level is through the roof. I've never seen anything like it."

Foxx moved past with his entourage and headed to the field. Cruise and Holmes were scheduled to walk by at 6:10. They showed up four minutes early. Cruise wore a dark blue suit and tie. Holmes wore a formal-looking dress with high-heeled shoes that had her towering above Cruise. Both sported sunglasses even though the skies were darkening. Holmes made a stop in the cheerleaders' locker room by the field, then the two joined Snyder and Foxx outside. New NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walked by. It was his third game in five nights. He'd been to the NFL's season-opening game Thursday night in Pittsburgh and to the Manning Bowl on Sunday night. "I'm not sure I can keep it up," he said.

As the Redskins took the field for pregame warmups, the Redskins' defensive boss, Gregg Williams, chatted with former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw on his way through the tunnel. ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber scribbled on a notepad as she talked to running back Clinton Portis. A group of police officers carrying rifles and flags strode past. Military representatives emerged from a nearby locker room. The night would be an odd mix of football, Hollywood and Sept. 11 patriotism.

In the stands fans were handed American flags. At 6:37 the PA system blasted the "Monday Night Football" theme music. The Redskins left the field two minutes later, returning to their locker room after warmups. Shapiro left the field first, followed by Cruise and Holmes. Cruise made sure to stop and shake hands with two security guards. Foxx did the same thing when he reached the tunnel moments later. A grim-faced Gibbs jogged off just ahead of his players. Cerrato and Snyder walked off surrounded by players. Snyder caught up to Foxx, Cruise and Holmes in the tunnel that wound its way past the Redskins' locker room to a carport area underneath the stadium where Snyder's vehicle and other limousines were stashed. The group got into a private elevator and rode up to the walkways leading to the owner's box.

During the Snyder era, the owner's box was often filled with an unglamorous CEO-type crowd. Not this night. Cruise, Holmes and Foxx were joined by another actor, Peter Berg, and actor and politician Fred Thompson. John Glenn was there. So were Jack Kemp and his wife. There was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace. There were media luminaries Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff. There was Darrell Green and his wife, Jewell. It was more like the star-filled gatherings of the Jack Kent Cooke days. Snyder was joined by his sister, Michele, and mother, Arlette. Cruise sat between Snyder and Holmes. Foxx made an appearance in the ESPN booth during the second quarter with announcers Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser. ESPN had asked for Cruise but his representatives had declined the invitation. At the Redskins' practice on Saturday at Redskins Park, one of Cruise's representatives had discussed the possibility with Kornheiser, The Washington Post columnist and co-host of ESPN's highly successful "Pardon the Interruption" show, who was about to call his first regular season game. The agent said Cruise wouldn't do it. When Kornheiser asked why, the agent asked Kornheiser what he would ask Cruise during the broadcast.

"Some small stuff like, 'So, that lunatic period, you're over that now, right?' " Kornheiser said.

"That's why he's not doing it."

The game itself was a downer for Snyder. Redskins safety Pierson Prioleau suffered a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff. He'd been scheduled to start in Adam Archuleta's place on defense. Archuleta got a temporary reprieve and remained in the starting lineup, but he was already sensing things might not work out; maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to take the Redskins' money and try to fit into an unfamiliar defensive system.

Portis, who was coming back from a preseason shoulder injury, played but wasn't particularly effective. The offense was better than it had been during the preseason but still wasn't exactly awe-inspiring. The defense failed to dominate a Vikings offense that could have been dominated. The Redskins trailed by three points in the final minute. Mark Brunell hurried the offense down the field, but Randle El ran out of bounds just shy of a first down after a third-down catch. The Redskins had to send in kicker John Hall to try a 48-yard field goal. There was a crosswind, and Hall would have to strike the ball perfectly.

He didn't.

Hall pulled the kick wide left with 12 seconds left. After one kneel-down by quarterback Brad Johnson, the Vikings celebrated their way to their locker room. The Redskins were 0-1 and the NFC East was 1-3 on the season's opening weekend. It wasn't the beginning anyone had envisioned for the would-be powerhouse division.

Adapted from the book "War Without Death: A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football's NFC East" by Mark Maske, published by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright (c) Mark Maske, 2007.

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