There's a fine line in journalism, I believe, between asking productive questions to athletes and coaches and crossing the line in terms of what's fair and what's foul.
Last night, writer Kent Somers asked Cardinals QB Derek Anderson what I think was a mostly fair question: In essence, was there reason to smile on the sideline in the middle of such a humiliating loss? Anderson was seen having a brief smile and laugh with teammate Deuce Lutui on the sideline late during the onslaught. It came off looking a little strange, even if we didn't know the perspective of what happened. Anderson immediately came off as defensive in his answer.
"It wasn't funny. I wasn't laughing about anything," he said. "I'm not laughing about it. You think this is funny? I take this [expletive] serious. Real serious. I put my heart and soul into this [expletive], every single week.
"I don't go out there and laugh. It's not funny. Nothing's funny to me. I don't want to go out there and get embarrassed on "Monday Night Football," in front of everybody."
ESPN announcer Jon Gruden had a fairly strong reaction when it happened, saying that as a coach he wanted the fact that a team was getting killed at home to bother a player. Gruden singled out Anderson during the broadcast, and with him being a fomer coach, I think that warrants attention from the media to ask Anderson about it.
And you know what? Anderson could have ended the whole thing summarily by saying something to the effect of: "Hey, we were getting killed. I took it personally. Deuce came over and tried to pick me up. I'll keep what we said private, but he was just trying to be a good teammate."
Done. End of story.
If Anderson says something along those lines, it probably doesn't even make a ripple today. Instead, he flipped. He dropped F-bombs and yelled directly at Somers, which was the wrong way to handle it. Did Somers (who is a damned fine reporter, by the way, and a PFW correspondent, I might add) cross the line and perhaps twist the knife a little with the follow-up questions? I don't think that was his intent, but I can understand if some of you out there can see if that came off as a pot-stirring move.
It's a tough call. My co-worker, Arthur Arkush, just came up to me in the office and asked me, "Would you have asked that question?" I said I didn't know. I am not sure if that is my style. My first thought was: What would that question bear? What would it give us?
But it's interesting how it played out. Because it gave us a glimpse of a clearly frustrated, clearly beaten man in Anderson who perhaps lacks the poise in tough situations to deal with adversity. Now, I am talking off the field, facing the media, but it has been a knock against him on the field, too. And if you can't face the media and deal with that heat, how can you lead a team?
On the other side of the coin, this might have been a one-off kind of deal. This might have just been a guy having a bad night. I can accept that. Do I think Anderson, who is 27 and in his sixth season, should have handled this better? Oh, yes, I do. But should we cut him some slack of the laugh/smile/whatever part? No question.
I remember watching an NFL Films feature where they had a microphone on Panthers WR Steve Smith in Week One of last season against the Eagles when QB Jake Delhomme was having a horrific meltdown on the field, dishing out turnover after turnover at a shocking rate. On the sideline, after the carnage, Smith and Delhomme shared a moment together. In their unique way of communicating, Smith tried to pick up his teammate with a bit of sarcasm.
"Hey, I know you feel like crap," Smith said to his defeated QB. "I mean, you're not a very handsome guy anyway, so. The performer, the quarterback … I never really liked you as a quarterback. But as a person, that's who I love. I love you as a person."
All Delhomme could do was briefly chortle and say: "I appreciate it."
People overreacted to the Smith sound bite, and they are doing the same with Anderson. The difference is in how the quarterbacks handled their respective troubles. Delhomme self-effacingly took the full brunt of the blame, although we must add he wasn't asked about the conversation with Smith until days later. Anderson, in the heat of the moment, blew up. Is he wrong for doing so? Well, no, but he could have handled things far better.
The NFL, especially after games, is an emotional cauldron. People have strange reactions to pressure situations. I remember when I used to sing in high school, I would get incredibly sleepy right before I went on stage. It was my body's way of self-adjusting to the adrenaline rush, I guess. Others clearly get more agitated in high-stress environments, and it changes their personality in some other way.
As media, we are privy to these tightrope situations every week. We see athletes stripped down, quite literally and figuratively, at their most vulnerable. And sometimes their reactions are not things they are proud of later. I am guessing that Anderson will come out Wednesday, his scheduled day to talk to the media again, and express disappointment in how he handled things. Somers already has appeared on Chicago sports radio this morning and said that he wished it didn't happen the way it did.
So there you have it. It wasn't pretty last night, but there has been a lot of that this season, especially in Arizona, where the Cardinals have gone from a few plays away from a Super Bowl title to becoming one of the five worst teams in the NFL. You can feel for Anderson, too, in that he touched greatness as a QB for a brief run in 2007 with the Browns but has failed to do much since.
If there ever was a guy who could benefit from a sports psychiatrist, it's him, because I believe he has some talent. And right now, he has no answers for his or his team's problems. Last night, funny or not, showed that pretty clearly.