FFL Rewind: The Minicamp Diaries, Gentleman of Ill Repute (2002)

By  Last updated: 27th April 2011

The following piece was originally published on The FFL Online during the 2002 preseason.

Gentleman of Ill Repute: The Minicamp Diaries, Part IV
by Jessie Hester

Chicagoans, I’ve learned, live by three cardinal virtues: 1) Always choose deep-dish over thin-crust pizza. 2) Always blame the Great Chicago Fire on Ms. Whats-her-name’s cow. 3) Always have Jason Elam on your fantasy football team. And by the looks of things today, this third virtue may count for the most.

We were stuck in traffic on I-90 West, making molasses-slow progress toward DePaul University, where the Black Sox were opening their first spring minicamp. With the prospects of a long wait ahead of us, we looked for some means of diversion. Ricardo and his improviso guitar playing (with Jackie on harmonica) had been banned when we had passed through Ohio, and for some reason my cohorts did not want me to regale them with more stories of my FFL glory days. Their loss, I suppose. Now, besides its faulty air conditioning, the Manfordmobile’s radio antenna was also on the fritz. Resourceful as usual, Bob reached out of the car and wrapped some tin foil around the antenna, allowing us to sample the local AM stations. Manford tuned into WMVP, the local sports talk affiliate, where a heated discussion was already taking place:

CALLER: “—-and where does he get off ripping down an institution of Chicago? He might as well dance on George Halas’s grave.”

DJ: “Now come on, here. The Black Sox are a team looking to rebuild, rebound. And sometimes that means that you have to take your team in a new direction. How are you gonna say that they—”

CALLER: “—Yeah but what guy comes in and does that at the expense of the entire team’s morale? Look Tom, Jason Elam is the last remaining guy from the ’96 team. What guy does this? Yeah, I’ll tell you what Tom. It’s these new executives, these.thieves. And that coach, he’s just aa…well I can’t say it without you bleeping me Tom, but he’s a gentleman of ill repute.”

The tirade went on, the result of backlash from the day’s earlier news. Hendrik deBoer, head coach of the Black Sox, had announced that he would not be retaining kicker Jason Elam for the 2002 season. This was a forgone conclusion for those of us covering the league closely, and for many fans it was probably expected. Chicago had made an abundance of moves in the offseason, bringing in both Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson to supplement the backfield. But for Chicago fans, this was the pain of letting go, a proverbial slap in the face of nearly a decade of tradition.

But to really understand why this action could provoke so much wrath from the Chicago faithful, one must understand the curious coaching career of one Hendrik deBoer. deBoer arrived in January 2000, ironically enough, upon a wave of steady optimism. Though Coach Lukas Welburn was still revered by fans, it was clear that his best days of coaching were behind him. In the modern FFL, where competitive feelings now breed year-round involvement by coaches, Welburn’s laidback approach to coaching had outlived its usefulness. His moonlighting as a successful plumber also created strains with management, and a quick change was made. Yet deBoer did not make a very auspicious first impression. In a March press conference, the cocky deBoer exclaimed that he would “make this league my female dog,” said that “my hiring is the best thing Chicago ever did” and announced that “the real history of Chi-Town starts today. Now treat me as your Jesus, a’ight?”

Later, during training camp, he was reminded by FFL sideline reporter Ricardo Dayton that Chicago had been pegged by Manford Fowler to finish dead last in the FFL Central-South division. That remark led to fisticuffs; at one point Dayton shoved deBoer over. The coach flipped, landed on his head, but then immediately bounced back up and resumed fighting. Surely this was evidence of a force to be reckoned with. And the controversy did not end there. During a particularly tough 51-38 loss to the Predators, Hendrik received taunts from his brother and opposing coach across the field. He charged out to attack his sibling, only to be restrained and then ejected from the game. (One wonders what the meetings between Atlanta and Chicago will be like THIS year.) But now deBoer had committed his most grievous sin — leaving city idol Jason Elam off of the protected 3-man roster. This was going to be tough to live down.

In the parking lot outside of the DePaul practice field, the most zealous fans were having a field day. After we had parked, Manford and I looked on as a group of fans in Elam Black Sox jerseys engaged in the ritualistic torture of a Hendrik effigy. One of the Elams held the sackcloth Hendrik taught while the others pummeled him with their fists. Then, a small child, no older than 10, was egged on by his father to give the effigy a swift flying dropkick. The Elams danced around their prey, dousing it with a mixture of garbage and kerosene. We really had to marvel at their thoroughness. They even made sure to soak the eyes with extra fuel. Then, as a final indignity, the rag doll was hoisted up and shoved onto a long vertical railroad spike, the spike penetrating the doppelgangers posterior and emerging from his neck. Lit ablaze, the Elams gave out a cheer.

Things weren’t quite as animated on the Black Sox practice field, though a lot of preparation for 2002 was certainly going on. With the majority of the team’s strategies and personnel of the past three years scrapped, the onus for redesigning the Chicago offense now falls squarely on deBoer. What was debatable before is now clearly true; this is deBoer’s team to run now, and whether he sinks or swims will depend on his own actions. Starting with the trade for uber-quarterback Daunte Culpepper early in 2001, deBoer began to redesign the team’s playing style in radical ways. After all, the Welburn era never really saw any franchise quarterbacks. Dave Krieg and Troy Aikman never put up numbers of any consequence. And while Drew Bledsoe, (a pretty good quarterback in his own right) had a tenure here of several years, he did so with year after year of horrible supporting casts. How else would Jason Elam have stuck around on the team that long? With a rock-bottom 0-13-1 finish in 1998, and several lackluster seasons since, Culpepper was the first reason for optimism in Chicago for a long time.

This offseason brought more change in the guises of Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson. Though James is one of those FFL players whom everybody will have questions about this preseason due to his recovering ACL, deBoer sees him as a key find who could elevate the Black Sox to real playoff contenders. “Some people have had their doubts about him,” says deBoer, “but they’ll rue the day they let him go to my team.” And in a steal of a trade, deBoer was able to abscond with Tomlinson from Miami by merely shelling out a third round pick. The duo of running backs, now hurriedly learning the Black Sox’s offensive scheme, will certainly be the x-factors in 2002. Best case scenario: James returns to form, Tomlinson avoids a sophomore slump. Black Sox go 9-5, win division, cruise into playoffs. Worst case scenario: James is hurt, or lackluster in his play. Tomlinson hits the wall. Culpepper can’t make up the ground lost and the team garners another 5-9 type season.

Whatever the outcome, deBoer seems prepared. “I’ve learned a lot since I arrived here. And with the team we have this year, we have the tools to win the Fantasy Bowl. It’s no longer about building for the future, the window of opportunity is now and I intend to go for it.”

That evening, the Black Sox closed out their minicamp with a night game scrimmage. Coach K and I walked the sidelines with deBoer. Known as the Black vs. Silver game, it was a split-squad showdown showcasing all the players at camp. Here we would get a good look at the changes for the 2002 Black Sox team. On the Black side: Culpepper, James, Trung Canidate, Wayne Chrebet, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Rickey Dudley. On the Silver: Quincy Carter at QB, Tomlinson, Mike Alstott, Darrell Jackson, Johnny Morton, and Kevin Johnson (in an improvised no TE offense deBoer experimented with in the scrimmage.) Defensive coordinator Brian Nocera walked the sideline for the Silver side.

After winning the coin toss, the Silver team struck quickly by returning the kickoff for a touchdown. The play involved a lateral at the 35 to receiver Kevin Johnson, and was instantly recognizable to Coach K as one that special teams guru Antti Koskelo pioneered in the 2001 season for the Montana Blazers. It seems that deBoer has demonstrated a willingness this season to borrow from the best minds in the game.

The next several possessions yielded few scores, and the first quarter ended at 7-0. However, Culpepper took control of the game at the outset of the second quarter. The successful drive: James sweeps right for 5, Culpepper completes an out pattern to Chrebet for 3, James runs a counter left for another 4 and the first down. Then, in shotgun formation, Culpepper fakes the draw to James and fires out to Hakim for a 22 yard pickup and first down. A holding penalty on the next play sets the Black team back, but Culpepper responds with a 16 yard strike to Hakim. After an incomplete, James wraps in a 10 yard catch for the first down. The Black Sox begin to eat up the clock, driving it into the red zone on the legs of James. Then, rolling out for an option play intended for James, Culpepper keeps the ball himself and barrels in for a 12 yard TD run.

The Silver team struck back on the following drive, bringing the score at the close of the second quarter to 14-7. Tomlinson monopolized the drive with 6 carries for 37 yards. Quincy Carter capped the drive with an 18 yard hook to Darrell Jackson. In the third quarter, the Black squad took advantage of Carters inexperience. Leaving their cornerbacks in simple man coverage, they sent their linebackers in one multiple blitzes. Noceras playcalling was unable to adapt, and Carter was left to force the ball unwisely. Black squad cover man Kwame Lassiter returned one pass for a 48 yard TD, evening the score at 14 apiece. Nocera regrouped his Silver team, though, and on the following drive he fed the ball continuously to Tomlinson, who ripped up the Black defense for 7 more carries and 50 yards. Deep in the red zone at the 8, Carter faked to Tomlinson and, stutter-stepping to the side, wobbled an off-balance throw into the corner of the end zone, where Jackson was somehow able to bring it down, netting his second TD of the game. The drive was followed by a series of innocuous attempts to hit the red zone Black punt, Silver intercepted, Black punt, Silver punt. Going into the fourth quarter, though, Silver led Black 21-14.

Yet Culpepper was able to bring on more FFL All-Pro type magic. Coach K noted that he is showing more finesse in his passing game, making more improvisations on the line and not being afraid to take the ball himself. He showed just that in the drive opening the fourth quarter, as he completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards, and ran for 15 more himself. A light toss to Rickey Dudley produced another score from 3 yards out.

With the score tied now at 21-21, the Silver team began its next drive at their 27. Carter aired up his first pass, completing an 8 yard reception to Morton. Tomlinson took the next two handoffs for 7 and 8 yards. After a delay of game penalty (another mark against Carters inexperience) Morton took in the biggest offensive play of the game, a 37 yard reception along the left sideline. Here, however, the Black defense dug in, deflecting a Carter pass and stuffing Tomlinson twice in the line. In an attempt to break the tie, the Silver squad brought in Jason Elam to break the tie. The crowd let up large cheers, perhaps to let deBoer know who their man was. Elam lined up for the 45 yard attempt. The snap came. The defensive tackle lunged forward and split the line, sending the right guard teetering backward. He went skyward, and as the kick went up, was nearly able to jar the ball with his fingertip. He might as well have, as the ball sailed right of the goalpost. Those hardcore Elam men were, I imagine, crestfallen. I wonder if the dropkicking kid was as well.

Now with time running out, Culpepper and his unit ran onto the field to make a last ditch effort to avert an overtime. He took the ball himself at first, grinding out a number of yards before being mauled by the opposing middle linebacker. With no timeouts left (and 17 seconds remaining, the team assumed a hurry-up, three-receiver offense. Culpepper dropped back into the shotgun, weaved left, and then fired a ball to James in the middle traffic. The strong safety bumped the ball with his wrist, but James somehow maneuvered himself to grasp onto the ball. Falling forward, he was able to break away from the safety and charge for a 49 yard TD catch. What a play.

The game over, Coach K and I tried to interview deBoer. However, he was already swamped by the ESPN folks. We couldnt even get Nocera to sit down with us, because SI and FOX had dibs on the post-game interview. Even Telemundo had outflanked us in the press corps. So, the FFL Tonight crew piled into the Manfordmobile and headed out into the night. The next morning, driving through eastern Iowa, we could still pick up faint traces of the WMVP signal.

CALLER: Didja see the hands on Edge? He’s like a god among men out there!

DJ: Well, it looks like they have a solid game plan implemented, and really, its a question of whether Edge can stay healthy, and Culpepper can put in another good year. I dont think anyones going to be missing Elam. It was his time to move on.


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