“Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?! I just hope we can win a game…”
Twenty years ago this week, those famous words were uttered by the soon-to-be-fired Jim Mora in the bowels of the old RCA Dome. More than the quote itself, Mora’s high-pitched inflection and face contortions when answering the question from WRTV’s Tim Bragg were what made the quote so memorable. It’s one of those clips that you have to hear and see to fully appreciate how hilariously bad it is, like Carl Lewis’s rendition of the National Anthem or Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. Even two decades later, Mora’s rant shares a place on the mantle with Allen Iverson’s infamous “Practice? We talkin’ about practice?” line, Dennis Green’s “Crown their asses!” meltdown, and Mike Gundy’s unhinged “I’m a man! I’m 40!” spiel as the most infamous and quoted portions from any sports press conference this century.
But the real significance of that press conference has been lost to history. For one thing, it created a rift between Mora and one of the greatest players of all time.
“The ‘Playoffs?’ thing is what has lived on, but what struck me most about that press conference at the time was Jim Mora ripping his quarterback,” says Mike Chappell, who has been on the Colts beat since the Mayflower vans arrived in 1984. “He had just had enough of people making excuses for Peyton.”
Manning, in his fourth NFL season at that point, threw a career-high four interceptions in the loss that afternoon, including a third quarter pick-six that gave the 49ers back a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. He ended up throwing to the other team 23 times that season, the second and final time he broke the 20-interception mark in his 17-year Hall of Fame career. In going back over the press conference audio, Mora took several, not-so-thinly-veiled shots at Manning, but those soundbites haven’t been replayed a billion times over the last 20 years:
“I don’t care who you play. When you turn the ball over five times—four interceptions, one for a touchdowns—you ain’t going to beat anyone. That was a disgraceful performance.”
“We threw that game by doing that. We threw them the friggin’ game.”
“We’ve thrown four interceptions for touchdowns this year. That might be an NFL record. That’s absolutely pitiful.”
Can you imagine a coach starting a press conference like that today with any quarterback, much less Peyton <bleeping> Manning?
Despite taking full responsibility for the loss during his own media availability, Manning wasn’t pleased with his head coach, publicly stating that Mora “never spoke to me directly and I doubt he will.” The fact that Mora’s locker room rant in front of the team also made it across the globe, clearly irked him. Here’s Manning just days later:
“Now, to be called out in front of the whole country, where that press conference is going to be replayed over and over again for the whole country? But you know what? I can handle it because I am the player and he’s the coach and that’s the way it is. But if somebody asked me if that bothers me, you’re damn right it bothers me.”
Mora immediately backtracked from his rant, saying that he loved Peyton and wouldn’t trade him for any quarterback in the world, but there was no saving it at that point. The damage was done. What’s crazy, though, is that even after all of the drama, and a 6–10 fourth-place AFC East finish, he apparently could’ve kept his job as Colts head coach.
Part of the reason that Mora, a fiercely loyal, principled man and former Marine, was so quick to fly off the handle in that presser was because he was standing up for a fellow coach and friend in Vic Fangio. The beleaguered Colts defensive coordinator was under fire after giving up an average of 31+ points per game in that season-nuking November losing skid, which culminated in the 49ers dancing on the Colts’ postseason grave earlier that afternoon. A few years ago, in an interview on my old radio show, Query & Schultz, Mora claimed that he was given the opportunity by Bill Polian to remain head coach at season’s end—but only if he fired Fangio. He refused, and both of them got their pink slips. Fangio, just 43 years old at the time of he and Mora’s termination, went on to run three other NFL defenses (Houston, San Francisco, Chicago) and is currently in his third year as head coach of the Broncos. Meanwhile, in a sport where coaches get hired and fired repeatedly, Mora never found a job again, and a half-century career on the college and pro sidelines ended unceremoniously.
It’s incredible to think what could’ve been for Mora as the Colts immediately emerged as a contender under his replacement, Tony Dungy. In a weird way, Mora’s rant marked the last moment that the franchise was a consistent punchline, fittingly in the 18th year of a gawky, pimple-faced existence in Indianapolis. To that point, the Colts had stumbled through Bob Irsay’s desultory and volatile leadership in childhood, rode a never-ending mediocre quarterback carousel in their adolescence, and were the friendless teenager still eating lunch alone in the cafeteria deep into Mora’s tenure. At the end of the 2001 season, the Indianapolis version of the Colts had as many playoff wins as No. 1 overall picks (two), and outside of an outlier run to the 1995 AFC Championship Game, it felt like the whole thing was a circus, just with an inflated, Teflon-coated fiberglass roof acting as the big top.
Eighteen years of gaffes were not all Jim Mora’s fault, obviously, but as his tenure burned to the ground, a new Colts era rose from the ashes. The Colts won at least 10 games for nine-straight seasons after his firing, capturing seven AFC South Championships, winning one Super Bowl (XLI) and reaching another (XLIV) en route to the winningest decade of any team in NFL history. Would Mora have accomplished that feat? We’ll never know, but it’s reasonable to think that if he would’ve fired Fangio and hung on for the 2002 season, he could’ve still been at the controls of Indy’s impending ascension. Even through his turnover issues in his fourth year, there was enough of a sample-size to show that Manning was going to be a great quarterback—maybe not one of the greatest ever, but great, nonetheless. Plus, each of the core of Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, and Dwight Freeney was elite enough to succeed for whomever wore the headset. But Mora refused to abandon his principles for that chance, throwing away a potential Powerball-winning ticket, and that commendable decision is lost in the nationwide LOLing over the “Playoffs?” rant. Even knowing Fangio was as good as gone, regardless of if he was doing the firing or Polian was, Mora, like any good Marine, didn’t leave his comrade behind, and there’s something endearing about that.
So, as we look back on this anniversary, and the 20 years of mostly good and sometimes great Colts’ football since, maybe Jim Mora deserves a thank you. There’s no telling whether standing up for a friend, and in the process tossing the greatest professional athlete in Indianapolis history under the bus, put the Colts on the path to becoming a championship franchise, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Regardless, while others may remember Mora solely for his viral rant, I choose to remember him as a good man and a solid coach, whose selfless decision may have positively altered the destiny of the Indianapolis Colts forever.