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Bogged down by a nonissue

This topic of discussion is usually reserved for spring in Vermont. All week, there has been much ado about mud in Massachusetts. If ever there was an example of media gone amok, it has been the seemingly endless discussion of how mucked up the turf at Gillette Stadium would become after being left naked in the night, subjected to the snow, rain, cold and everything in between that was a part of New England's weather last week.

The premise, it seemed, was that somehow Bill Belichick was up to no good. He was playing loose and fast with the field so that by game time it would be loose and slow. He refused to cover it, some in the national media seemed to suggest, so it would become a quagmire so deep the Indianapolis receivers would be unable to get their cleats out of the ground this evening.

Well, first off, that is what home-field advantage is all about. What is he supposed to do, lay down AstroTurf so the Colts will feel at home?

Second, and more to the point, the league makes sure the field is covered for the final 48 hours before the game, anyway. If the league were truly interested in this being a level playing field for the Colts, it wouldn't push the start back to nearly 5 p.m., effectively turning a day game into a fresh-frozen night game, as it did a year ago when the Tennessee Titans came to town.

Lastly, if it is indeed 20 degrees this evening, the whole place will be frozen solid anyway, thus ending the muddy debate. Frozen mud, like frozen grass, is pretty solid under foot.

Pro football has always worked this way. The home team rules when it comes to the footing in January. If you want to do something about it, win enough games to be the home team yourself. Otherwise, deal with it.

Did the Packers' underground heating system at Lambeau Field really malfunction the minute the tarp was removed on Dec. 31, 1967, leaving the ground frozen solid in sub-zero temperatures on the morning of the NFL Championship game with the Dallas Cowboys? Or was there something more nefarious going on?

I don't know, but since it was 13 below that day, my guess is that the field would have been less than pleasant regardless of what the grounds crew did. It was probably 55 in Dallas that day. Too bad the Cowboys didn't get to play there.

Some 20-odd years ago, the San Diego Chargers brought their high-octane offense up to Oakland to play the Raiders late in the season. That team was like today's Colts. It was all about speed and passing. So imagine their surprise when they trotted out onto the turf at the Oakland Coliseum and found about 3 inches of water on the turf. This was especially surprising since it hadn't been raining in the Bay area. So it goes.

Certainly there would seem to be an advantage for the Patriots if the field is loose and muddy, both because it will slow down the Colts' receivers and also minimize the quickness of the league's leading pass rusher, fast but slightly built Dwight Freeney, who also plays for the Colts.

Then again, what if Earthwind Moreland suddenly becomes Earthbound Moreland when trying to follow a cutting Colt receiver and slips and falls? What if Rodney Harrison comes flying over to assist Randall Gay or Asante Samuel in coverage and his muddy feet go out from under him? Whom does the mud help then?

The idea of having the home field is to use it to your advantage. If that means leaving the field exposed to the elements, so be it. If it means heating it up with underground coils, that's fine, too. In the end, this game between two of the powerhouses in the AFC will not be decided because Foxborough in January has become Montpelier in April.

It will be decided by the guys running on top of the mud, mire or -- heaven help us -- grass. It will be decided the way games most often are decided -- by the players, not the playing surface.

Union throws penalty flag at agents

The NFL Players Association brought down the hammer on agents Jerome Stanley and Neil Cornrich, suspending both for not acting in the best interests of the union's members.

Stanley, the agent for Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt, missed a filing deadline for paperwork last February that would have allowed Northcutt to become a free agent.

Cornrich, who has represented Bill Belichick, was slapped down by the union for accepting $1,000 an hour to be an expert witness on behalf of General Motors in a deposition that was part of a lawsuit filed by the estate of Derrick Thomas, who was killed five years ago when his SUV rolled over.

Cornrich, who never actually testified in the case, intends to appeal.

Because of the problems that resulted when agents did not file paperwork in a timely fashion on behalf of Northcutt and Eagles receiver Terrell Owens -- paperwork that would have made them free agents -- and a third mixup that cost Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington a roster bonus of $6.5 million, the union circulated a preliminary e-mail last week to its certified agents warning that it is considering requiring each agent to have malpractice insurance.

That could put many of the more than 1,900 agents now certified out of the football business because they may not be able to afford such insurance. Those agents who are licensed attorneys very likely already have such insurance, but many of the newest agents, who work without law degrees and have few clients, could be forced out.

Shanahan may play 'follow the leader'

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has not won a playoff game since John Elway retired in 1999, a trend that continued a week ago when his team was slaughtered by the Colts. Last week, Shanahan pondered the possibility of following the Patriots' example in building his team.

"New England has obviously done a great job because they've done it consistently," he said. "They've plugged players in that have played very well in big games. So if there's a role model, it's probably that team because they have been very consistent.

"But I think every team wants as much depth as possible. You want the best players possible. You're trying to work within the salary cap to keep good players and try to get free agents that can possibly help your football team. So it's a combination of a lot of different things.

"Using Indianapolis, for an example. Can their defense stand up for the playoffs? They put a lot of money on offense. Can they stand up in a different environment throughout the playoffs? Those are the big questions. Can your defense stand up consistently going somewhere else? What gives you the best chance to win a championship? There are a lot of different philosophies, but the only person that's right is the person that wins it."


Next time, read the fine print

Word is, LaVar Arrington will very likely drop the grievance he filed against the Redskins over the $6.5 million roster bonus that was left out of the final version of the contract extension he signed last year. Arrington played only four games in 2004 and cited that as one of the reasons he may not pursue his case. But according to legal experts familiar with such issues in professional sports, Arrington would have to prove fraud and seems to have little evidence of that. When Arrington signed the extension a year ago, the final draft did not include the bonus for this year. He and his agents, Carl and Kevin Poston, admitted that they did not read the final draft.

Ramping it up

This time last year, Anthony Hargrove was watching the NFL playoffs when not working as a ramp worker for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta. Yesterday he was playing for the Rams in Atlanta against the Falcons. The Rams drafted Hargrove in the third round last year even though he had not played football for a year (academic problems kept him off the field for his senior season at Georgia Tech). The rookie became a starter Dec. 19. "It feels good to go home in these circumstances," he said.

Due for a raise

Chargers offensive line coach Hudson Houck did a remarkable job with a group of castoffs this season, and he hopes to cash in. Houck, who was already considered among the league's best line coaches even before this season, will wait until after Jan. 25 to begin talking with teams, including the Chargers, about his future. His contract is up and he's aware that his longtime AFC West rival, Alex Gibbs, was paid $1 million this season to coach the Falcons' offensive line. Houck makes an estimated $375,000 and would like to see that approach Gibbs's level in his next deal. The Chargers want to retain him but probably not at that price.

Job market shrinks

With few head coaching jobs open, Jim Fassel could end up taking the offensive coordinator's position with the Ravens. Fassel, the former Giants head coach, worked two days a week for the Ravens this season as an offensive consultant, spending most of his time tutoring young quarterback Kyle Boller. In an odd twist that signals how things have changed in the league, there are more offensive coordinator openings than head coaching jobs. Several head coaches, Baltimore's Brian Billick among them, sacrificed their offensive assistants to keep their own heads afloat. The Ravens' defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, has interviewed for the 49ers' opening, as has Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Is there crying in football?

Two days after Chargers rookie Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal attempt in overtime that could have beaten the Jets in the AFC wild-card game, he broke down in tears in the locker room. According to an eyewitness, Kaeding was standing in the back of the locker room when he suddenly slammed down his shower shoes and burst into tears.

Media blackout

New Dolphins head coach Nick Saban, a close friend of Bill Belichick's, didn't take long to make it clear that they have at least one thing in common: their distaste for the local media. Only days after taking over the Dolphins, Saban announced that the local media would no longer be allowed to use the workroom at Pro Player Stadium in the offseason, except for "special occasions." One assumes that did not mean birthdays and bar mitzvahs, but Saban was not specific.

It ain't so, Joe

A day after a report came out that the Lions were considering releasing quarterback Joey Harrington to avoid paying him a $3 million roster bonus in March, coach Steve Mariucci squashed it. "I've said this to everybody else all year long," Mariucci said. "We are giving Joey every opportunity to develop into our quarterback. I can't guarantee that he'll be our quarterback for the next 12 years. Everything that we've been doing is in keeping with developing him for the future. Some of it's about surrounding him with people. Some of it is, how do we best use him? What do we stay away from?" One thing they intend to stay away from is dumping Harrington this winter. That's good news for Ted Tollner, the former Southern Cal coach who is the leading candidate to replace retiring Sherm Lewis as offensive coordinator in Detroit.

Extensive confidence in him

The Chargers have yet to make a formal decision on the future of quarterback Drew Brees, but they made one Friday on the future of head coach Marty Schottenheimer. The team extended his contract for two years at a value of more than $8 million. Schottenheimer had a year left on his deal at $2.5 million, and his new three-year contract will pay him between $10.5 million and $12 million, right around what Belichick is earning. Schottenheimer, by the way, has told friends he believes he did the right thing when he sent LaDainian Tomlinson straight into the line three times after his offense drove to the Jets' 22-yard line in overtime. San Diego gained no yards, and Kaeding missed the 40-yarder.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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