Parties downplay matchups

The University of Minnesota alumni office has been consumed by preparations for the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 Homecoming Weekend. On Friday night there is a kickoff spirit night scholarship auction at the McNamara Alumni Center, followed by women's and men's hockey games. After the traditional pancake breakfast on Saturday morning, a big parade marches down University Avenue, followed by the Minnesota-Indiana football game.

Sadly, Tony Dungy, Class of '76, will miss the festivities. The head coach of the Indianapolis Colts has a game at Miami on Nov. 2. Dungy, however, will have an opportunity to reminisce and tell some lies with his old chums this Monday in Tampa, Fla. when his Colts visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team he coached for six seasons.

Welcome to NFL Homecoming Weekend '03.

The emotional card features Dungy versus the defense he built into a Super Bowl champion in a prime-time showcase, but there are several other compelling matchups that are also sure to stoke some fires. How about Arizona Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith playing back in Dallas where he set the NFL rushing record -- and rubbed some of his former teammates the wrong way? Or Steve Mariucci returning to the City by the Bay to face the team that fired him? Or was that the other way around?

What, you want more? How about Seattle's Mike Holmgren and Matt Hasselbeck and a handful of former Packers returning (triumphantly) to Green Bay? More? Linebacker Takeo Spikes faces his old team, the Cincinnati Bengals, at his new home in Buffalo.

These made-for-television events -- reality shows with real physical mayhem you won't see in those piranha-infested tanks on "Fear Factor" -- seem to mean more to the media and fans than the participants.

"I think that's true," Colts President Bill Polian said earlier this week. "I mean, there's emotion there if a lot of the same players are involved. But as the preparation begins and the game gets closer, they become just the opponent."

But while most of the parties involved -- OK, the Cowboys have been unable to restrain themselves -- have taken pains to say the right thing, don't think that there will be some folks on both sides of the ball looking for a measure of revenge.

Dungy, whose passion for the game smolders beneath a passive countenance, wants badly to win this game. Not for himself, but the Colts.

"Our distraction is with Tampa Bay, and the fact that they're a good football team and defending champions," Dungy said Monday. "I hope the game doesn't turn into a sideshow with the game itself being a small part of things."

The defense that Dungy built over six seasons in Tampa won Super Bowl XXXVII. The rub was that Dungy was coaching in Indianapolis, because the Bucs fired him. Would he have a second Super Bowl ring -- he won one as a defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII -- had the Glazer family not fired him after another playoff loss following the 2001 season? In any case, the Bucs cut Dungy loose and after entertaining a series of suitors that included Steve Mariucci, hired Jon Gruden.

Dungy, too, has done all right for himself. The Colts defense is giving up just 11.8 points per game and produced four turnovers against New Orleans that were converted into 28 points. One touchdown was a fumble recovery that defensive end Dwight Freeney returned 19 yards for a touchdown.

"That's what championship teams are made of, defenses that can do that, defenses that can score," noted Colts linebacker Jim Nelson, who had two interceptions against New Orleans. "You saw that with Tampa Bay last season."

The secondary storyline, Tampa Bay's still-ranked No. 1 defense vs. the Colts' Peyton Manning-led offense that threw up 55 points in Sunday night's victory over the New Orleans Saints, isn't bad, either.

"We played our poorest defensive game of the season, but the offense overshadowed it," Polian said. "Offensively, we've got a lot of weapons. The offense will get better as the season goes on, but we've got work to do defensively."

Know this about Dungy. Going back to 1970, Dungy's defenses have allowed the fewest points of any head coach. The average per game (17.2) is almost a touchdown more than the 11.8 the Colts have allowed this season.

"The game should be the major part," Dungy said, hopefully. "Playing on Monday night, the defending champions, we're 4-0. That should be the storyline. I think that would be a great storyline, but probably won't be."

Uh, no.

Texas two-step
Quietly, many on the Dallas Cowboys resented the 2002 crawl toward the coronation that was Emmitt Smith's run on Walter Payton's all-time rushing record.

It all would have remained that way -- quiet, that is -- if Smith had maintained his position on the high ground. But he didn't. In a "Sports Illustrated" story that appeared in August, Smith described himself in his final tour as a Cowboy as a "diamond surrounded by trash."

Predictably, the Cowboys players fired right back at Smith, who visits Texas Stadium on Sunday as a member of the Cardinals. The rushing record, they implied, became more important than winning. The Cowboys finished 5-11.

"Perhaps, at times, the focus on the season was based on him getting his rushing record rather than us having a successful winning percentage," defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Good or bad, it was a distraction, so we have better things to focus on now as a team -- and that is winning games."

Linebacker Dexter Coakley seconded the (e)motion.

"If you have any pride of playing the game of football, it did have an effect on you," Coakley told the Star-Telegram. "Especially (coming from) a guy who had been here so long, done so much in this game, and to go out and say some of the things he said …

"It was very painful."

Painful is an appropriate word for Smith's brief tenure with the Cardinals, who signed him as a free agent on March 27. Many hoped he would retire after he set the record, but Smith was adamant about playing another season.

When owner Jerry Jones and new head coach Bill Parcells decided that Smith's best years were behind him, they cut him loose after 13 seasons, 4,052 carries, 17,162 yards and 153 touchdowns. In the previous four seasons, Smith's yardage total and average per carry had gradually declined, from 1,379 yards (4.2) to 1,203 (4.1) to 1,021 (3.9) to last year's 975 (3.8).

The Cowboys are an unexpected 2-1 after two victories at Giants Stadium over two of Parcells' three former teams. Troy Hambrick, who waited impatiently for Smith to break the record and fade into the sunset, carried the ball 24 times for 127 yards last week against the New York Jets.

In four games with the 1-3 Cardinals, Smith has carried 59 times for 193 yards, an anemic average of 3.3 yards per carry. Smith has one touchdown, but how it was achieved last week in St. Louis underlines how he and the Cardinals have struggled. Arizona had a first down at the St. Louis 2-yard-line, then handed the ball to Smith four straight times. Finally, on fourth down, Smith broke into the end zone. The Cardinals lost 37-13 and the offense has now been outscored by 80 points in three losses.

The Cowboys defense will be waiting for Smith, who has historically risen to important occasions.

"Emmitt cannot beat us by his damn self," said Dallas safety Roy Williams. "I am going to be for real about that."

Back by the bay
Earlier this week, Steve Mariucci said this game was about Detroit and San Francisco's football teams. He downplayed his personal stake in the game and the 49ers, too. Right!

Like Smith, the Lions head coach returns to the scene of a crime against him; he had taken the 49ers to the playoffs two years in a row -- four times in six years -- when San Francisco sacked him.

Like Smith, Mariucci declined to publicly add fuel to any fires that still may be burning.

This does not mean he enters the game at 3Com Park without emotion. When he was fired on Jan. 15, the media heard the news even while Mariucci still was in his exit meeting with owner John York. His wife found out about it listening to the radio. York has since expressed regret over the way Mariucci's messy departure was handled, but when he sought out Mariucci at the NFL meetings this spring, the coach declined to speak with him.

When Mariucci sat down with two reporters from the Bay Area on Monday, he was modestly forthcoming.

No, he hasn't spoken to York since the firing. No, he hasn't spoken with 49ers general manager Terry Donahue. No, he didn't blame Bill Walsh for his demise. Yes, he's keeping his San Francisco-area home and, yes, his entire family will attend the game in San Francisco.

Will he try to speak with York during his return?

"I don't have that on my itinerary," Mariucci told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't have it planned. I have a busy schedule. We're on a certain routine."

Is he bitter toward the 49ers?

Mariucci declined to answer, angling his answer toward his happy life in suburban Detroit. Mariucci has cut a wide swath in Detroit, where the total of playoff wins in the last 40-plus seasons is a grand total of … one. He signed a $25 million, five-year contract and is perceived as a savior in the state in which he grew up.

The 49ers are also 1-3, but it is a descendant 1-3, as opposed to the Lions' ascendant 1-3. After beating the Chicago Bears 49-7, San Francisco lost to the Rams, Browns and Vikings. Minnesota won 35-7 last Sunday with quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the sideline.

"We got no heart," said wide receiver Terrell Owens.

That's because Mariucci did not leave his behind in San Francisco when he took the job in Detroit.

Round 2 at Lambeau
Actually, this is Mike Holmgren's second visit to the small Wisconsin burg he brought back to championship prominence.

The first trip went exceedingly well; his Seattle Seahawks blitzed the Green Bay Packers 27-7 in a 1999 Monday night game.

Because it's an instant replay and because Holmgren was not forced to leave -- he hungered for a general manager's title that the Seahawks were willing to give him -- this one feels more like a warm, fuzzy college reunion.

"It probably will be different this time," Holmgren said earlier this week, "But I think that is a special place. Now, I worked there, of course, but even before I worked there … for people that love football and this whole business, I think that should be a special place.

"Every time I go back there and play, it will be special."


Holmgren brings with him a small entourage of former Packers that includes offensive and defensive coordinators, Gil Haskell and Ray Rhodes, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

Hasselbeck worked in the anonymity of the Packers' practice squad in 1998, then backed up Brett Favre in 1999 and 2000. He never started a game and after the 2000 season, Holmgren traded for Hasselbeck. The first 1½ seasons produced middling results, but Hasselbeck was the league's hottest quarterback over the last six games of the 2002 season.

He has yet to cool off -- his passer rating is a sporty 94.1 through three games -- and the Seahawks are undefeated.

"It's a game I wondered what it would be like when I left there," Hasselbeck said. "I have good memories of that place and everyone treated me great there. That's where I got my first opportunity.

"It will be special."

There's that word again.

Welcome to Buffalo
There is also love in the air around Ralph Wilson Stadium -- or is that just the smell of Buffalo Wings cooking on the tailgate grills?

"I'm not going to go out and try to do something spectacular," Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this week. "I'm going to go out and do my best."

For five-plus seasons now, his best has been plenty good.

The first five seasons, of course, were in the stifling confines of Cincinnati -- the Bengals, not the city. Spikes was a terrific inside linebacker, starting 79 of 80 possible games and recording 689 tackles. The team, meanwhile, lost 61 of 80 games.

When Spikes' contract was up, the unrestricted free agent solicited offers and the Bills delivered a six-year, $32 million offer in March. The Bengals declined to match and Spikes was headed to Buffalo, where oddly enough, he is becoming a national star.

He has 29 tackles and two interceptions in four games and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after the Bills blanked the Patriots 31-0. He has gotten all kinds of attention and been all over the airwaves -- from those quirky NFL Countdown commercials to Dan Patrick and Jim Rome's radio shows.

Spikes speaks fondly of his former Bengals teammates -- he talks regularly with a handful of them -- if not the organization.

"I know how much we did to try to turn things around," Spikes said of his former teammates in Cincinnati.
"I still root for them. They're my boys. There's a piece of me still there."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.