"What's the big deal?" Bert Jones wanted to know. Over and over during perhaps a half-hour session with reporters outside the Baltimore Colts' offices today, he kept saying that, until his voice sounded like a squeal. "It's not me. I'm not doing a thing. It's hilarious to me that a major obstacle can come out of something like this. You'd think we were having a second coming of (the Battle of) Gettysburg."
From a distance, it does seem absurd. A collision of small minds and large egos, Jones and Curtis Dickey in a snit after the quarterback publicly embarrassed the star runner on the field Sunday and the runner then publicly blamed the quarterback in the clubhouse for his being benched. And the coach trying to be diplomatic when he should be demonic.
This would be no more than a dash of spice on even a mediocre team; it can be sporting cyanide for a loser.
The Colts are losers.
They are a defensive abomination. In the Age of Parity in the National Football League, they cannot beat anybody but themselves. No team except the 1-9 Colts has won fewer than three games. The Colts have lost eight games in a row and surrendered at least 41 points in four of the last five weeks.
Under such conditions, the conduct of the team's two most gifted players and coach is a very big deal. From not too afar, it seems as if Jones is too self-centered, Dickey too moody and irresponsible and Mike McCormack too much a gentleman ever to realize his coaching dreams.
To anyone whose livelihood is not affected, humor abounds. All manner of scenarios leap to mind. Will quarterback Jones hand the ball to halfback Dickey when serious practice resumes Wednesday? Will Dickey accept it? Might Jones slip the ball into Dickey's stomach and then, as a spinoff to what Lucy does to Charlie Brown, pull it away?
This all began when Jones scrambled on a pass play in Memorial Stadium early against the Jets and threw nothing but a tantrum. For everyone to see, he scolded Dickey for loafing. When the play became a bust, so did Dickey, who stood, statue-like, instead of improvising. Or at least belting somebody.
As Jones volunteered, quarterbacks from Play 1 have been growling at teammates now and then. Most players are hell-raisers who enjoy legally beating the bejabbers out of somebody once a week. Part of the justification for the sport, after all, is that it keeps the streets safer.
Quarterbacks constantly yell at teammates. On the Bobby Layne Lions and Steelers, cussin' was common. It was a surprise when somebody did not get a new hole bored somewhere in his anatomy after a play failed.
"You should ask Wade Griffin what I yelled at him," Jones said of one of his blockers. "I gave him hell on the football field. Nothing personal. Ask Randy McMillan what I said to him when I was in the same situation (as when Dickey did nothing). 'Go quick and make a play. Do something!' "
Jones' mistake was berating Dickey in public. Every worker in every job has been frustrated at times. There are rumors that even columnists, wise and calm that we are, sometimes have wicked words with dumbheaded editors who always pencil out the best of our prose.
The classiest way to tackle a problem is in private. No leader, especially the coach of a woebegone team, wants his workers' dirty laundry hung in public. Jones aired a basketful when he let it be known that Dickey often has slept in meetings.
Dickey was considered a risk coming out of Texas A & M last year. Many general managers were astonished when the Colts made him the fifth player chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. It had nothing to do with his ability, which may be close to matchless.
He is one of those near-unique backs who allow scouts to be brief and accurate on their reports simply by writing: "Secretariat." His blend of speed and power is that special. Like any thoroughbred, this colt was said to be sidelined by the slightest nick. The knock on Dickey was that he spent more time in the training room than on the field.
"When the trade (that sent Joe Washington to the Redskins for a second-round draft choice on draft day this season) was announced," one general manager said, "I told someone: 'That's the worst thing that could have happened to Curtis Dickey. Now he won't have anyone to push him.' "
For other reasons, McCormack agrees.
"He benefited from Joe," McCormack said. "He learned from him, how and when to cut. And Joe and Bert had a great feeling for each other on the field. They could anticipate each other. That helped Curtis, on (pass) patterns and runs."
Bigger than Dickey and Jones in every way imaginable, McCormack was asked whether he considers his quarterback a leader. The coach paused, ran one of his massive hands over his face and finally said:
"I'm not sure who our leaders are. No one steps right up. I'd like Bert to be. I don't know."
Lack of talent at some positions aside, the major problem McCormack sees with the Colts is a "generation gap."
"Thirty-two players (out of a roster of 45) are in their first, second or third year in the league," he said. "And most of the rest are real veterans. Most leadership on most teams comes from players in their fourth through eighth years.
"I don't completely buy (George) Allen's emphasis on veterans. But you have to have some in that area."
McCormack exploded during a Monday press conference when it became known Jones had tattled on Dickey's dozing, partly because it violated a confidence and partly because it reflected badly on his control of the team. While questioning the ability of some assistants, owner Robert Irsay has publicly supported McCormack.
The feeling among some officials is that McCormack at least must get the team competitive the last six games and keep the bickering internal. Now Jones is a bit miffed at McCormack for being so angry with him.
I was only defending McCormack, suggesting why he might be frustrated with Dickey, Jones bleats.
Has Jones talked with Dickey?
"He won't talk to me," Jones said.
McCormack has met privately with Jones and Dickey. Probably, he should haul both of them together, by the throat if necessary, and get matters settled. Instead of treating them delicately, as though they were Begin and Mubarak, McCormack needs to realize who they more closely resemble: small sons.
But McCormack has tried anger with the Colts. He even broke a projector once during a team-meeting tirade last season. Perplexed beyond belief, he is open to suggestions, knowing that the more he loses the more he'll get. And that the next opponent is merely Philadelphia, with arguably the best defense in the entire NFL and whose offense scored 52 points the last game.