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The Silent Treatment

For good times, there's nothing like inviting a car full of
lip-readers over to watch Sunday's NFL games.

Lipreading is a feverish topic in the NFL these days. Coaches
are covering their mouths when they send in plays because they're
suspicious that thieves are watching. The coaches look like they
had onions for lunch or just graduated from the Istanbul Spy
Institute. "We hear rumors all the time about [opposing] coaches
hiring guys to read our lips," says Cardinals offensive
coordinator Rich Olson.

It's no rumor, pal. "Our guy keeps a pair of binoculars on their
signal-callers every game," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
"With any luck, we have their defensive signals figured out by
halftime. Sometimes, by the end of the first quarter."

Giants coach Jim Fassel thinks it's all lip service. "If someone
is that smart," Fassel grouses, "he should be curing cancer, not
coaching football."

To check it out, I hired three lip-readers, all women, all
football fans and all either hearing impaired or profoundly deaf,
to come by the house last weekend. Nice people. They didn't even
complain when my younger son tried to sign good morning, but
wound up signing screw you instead.

The first game was the Colts' easy win over the Broncos, and the
one guy who should've covered his mouth was not a coach but a
player, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. He's Dudley
Do-Right in public, but on the field Manning seems to have the
vocabulary of a dyspeptic carnival employee. The lip-readers
counted nine televised f---s, many dammits, and, once, just for
variety's sake, a f-----' dammit!

In the first quarter, after a replay had overturned an apparent
touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Manning was seen
to say, disgustedly, "Why'd they show the f-----' replay?" When a
running back short-armed his screen pass, he yelled, "F-----' get
in there!"

After the game, when our correspondent went to the locker room
and told Manning the lip-readers had nailed him, Manning took the
stringer's cell phone and called me.

"They got me, huh?" he said, dejectedly.

"Nine times," I said.

"Man, I don't like to use that kind of language. I hate for the
kids to see that stuff. But you forget the camera is on you, you
know? It just pops out. Nine times? My mother is going to call
and reprimand me for that."

Lip-readers are more fun than naked Jell-O fights. One time an
unidentified Colts fan went up to the Broncos' ubiquitous Barrel
Man and said, apparently, "Hey, we can get you some pants!" Now
that's the new American spirit shining through.

(For kicks, we watched a replay of the Rose Bowl game. The camera
zeroed in on a gorgeous blonde who smiled and appeared to say
something vaguely sexy to her friend. Turns out, the lip-reader
says, it was, "Is there something gross on my face?" Sometimes
life's better without a sound track.)

The next game was the Jets' 24-22 win over the Raiders, in which
we found out Oakland coach Jon Gruden has a mouth he shouldn't
kiss his mother with. He also has one that's easier to read than
a stop sign. Most of the time he made no effort to cover his
lips, which meant the lip-readers could read what plays he was
sending in. Once, they read him saying, "Left side, 290,
radical," and it went for a left-side touchdown pass to tight end
Roland Williams. When our correspondent asked Williams after the
game if that was, indeed, the name of the play, Williams's eyes
got big, and he said, "Where'd you get that?"

It is a very odd feeling to have three hearing-impaired women
telling you what play the Raiders will run next. If Fassel didn't
believe it before, you think he does now?

Even when Gruden tried to cover his mouth, he did it two inches
too low and with his play card, so that an entire side of plays
could be read easily by any schlub with a TV set and a zoom
button. Hey, nobody said football coaches were Mensa members.

All in all, despite the rampant profanity, I decided there are
three major advantages for hearing-impaired NFL fans:

a) They have access to a part of the game that's unknown to most
of us.

b) They gain a new appreciation for its verbal intensity.

c) They never have to listen to Jerry Glanville.


It is a very odd feeling to have three hearing-impaired women
telling you what play the Raiders will run next.