Sometimes, when Tim Bragg walks down the hallway at Belzer Middle School in Indianapolis, he hears students shouting “PLAYOFFS” at him. That may sound strange, but Bragg is used to it. It’s been happening to him in some form for almost 20 years. He is, after all, the man who asked former Colts coach Jim Mora Sr. the question that caused him to go off on an infamous diatribe about the team’s chances to make the postseason in 2001.
“I don’t go around and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m the guy who [asked the question],’” Bragg says. “I don’t ever mention it. But somehow, people find out.”
Bragg used to work at Channel 6 WRTV in Indianapolis. But he’s since become a physical education teacher, and on his very first day at Belzer, he was ambushed by his new coworkers, who played the video as he walked in to meet them. Bigwig administrators he hardly knows in the school district have reached out and asked, “You’re the guy?”
“Even my little kids saw it, and they’re like, ‘Daddy, that’s you on TV,’” Bragg said. “And so then for about six months, they would run around yelling playoffs, playoffs, playoffs.”
The internet turns all of us into children. So, like Bragg’s kids, sports fans have also run around yelling “playoffs” for the past two decades. Kevin Bowen, a radio host for Indianapolis’s The Fan, says the phrase is ever present. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the word come up in conversation in Indianapolis and that not be mentioned with someone trying to imitate Jim Mora,” Bowen says.
If you’ve followed the NFL much at all over the past two decades, you can probably hear the line in your head. PLAYOFFS?! Don’t talk about—playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs!?! It is on the short list of all-time press conference quotes, alongside Allen Iverson saying “We’re talking about practice,” and Dennis Green shouting “They are who we thought they were.” Thanksgiving marks the 20th anniversary of the tirade. But plenty of people who quote the line probably couldn’t tell you who said it (Mora), or the player who caused Mora to enter the press conference so frustrated (Peyton Manning). Never mind knowing why Mora was really so upset—or why the clip has taken on such a massive second life.
Greg Rakestraw, who currently hosts the Colts’ postgame show and was in attendance for that fateful press conference, remembers it well. “That’s the day,” Rakestraw says, “that Vesuvius erupted in Indianapolis.”
Volcanoes are vents, and there were a lot of reasons Mora needed to vent about Indy’s 2001 campaign. The previous season had ended with the Colts blowing a 14-0 halftime lead to the Dolphins in the wild-card round. The year before that, the Colts went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye, but lost in the divisional round. The two consecutive early playoff losses squandered much of the goodwill Mora had earned for turning around a 3-13 team. So coming into 2001, Mora’s fourth season in Indy, there was tremendous pressure for the Colts to win in the, uh, playoffs.
The Colts started 2-0 that year, but the wheels came off in Week 3, as they lost to a young Patriots quarterback named Tom Brady who was making his first career start. Brady’s Patriots waxed Indy 44-13, and three weeks later, they did it again, walloping the Colts 38-17. In Week 7, star Colts running back Edgerrin James—who had led the NFL in rushing the previous two seasons—tore his ACL. In Week 10, Indy lost by two touchdowns to the Saints—the team Mora had previously coached for 11 years. (Mora had coached New Orleans for so long that, before he resigned, he was the longest-tenured active head coach in major American sports.) As the Colts prepared for a Week 11 contest against the San Francisco 49ers, they had lost five of their past seven, leaving them with a 4-5 record that put them at risk of missing the, well—you know.
The blame game was already in full swing. Colts general manager Bill Polian pinned Indy’s issues primarily on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. (Indy would finish the season allowing the most points in the NFL.) But Fangio was a good friend of Mora’s, and Mora was loyal. According to media members who covered the team at the time, Mora felt Polian refused to acknowledge that Manning, the Golden Boy QB who was in his fourth NFL season, was not playing well enough. Manning went on to have 23 picks that season, second most in the NFL. He also threw six pick-sixes, the most in the Super Bowl era until Jameis Winston threw seven in 2019. At the time, Manning was seen (perhaps unfairly) as the guy who couldn’t win big games. “It wasn’t Peyton Manning as the world knows him now,” Bragg says.
All this infighting was the backdrop as the Colts played the 49ers in Week 11. And in this crucial game, with the 4-5 Colts trying to keep their postseason hopes alive, Manning threw four interceptions, including a pick-six, in a 40-21 loss. And he did it against a defense coached by Jim Mora Jr., who was awarded the game ball after the win.
“It was great to win,” Mora Jr. told Rich Eisen this week. “But it wasn’t fun to beat your dad.”
If Mora Sr. had volcanic tendencies entering this game, then the result let loose a fountain of magma. The loss all but buried Indy’s postseason chances; Manning’s meltdown seemed to vindicate Mora’s diagnosis of the team; Mora’s son got the better of his father’s team; and all of this came one week after Mora Sr.’s previous employer beat him by two touchdowns. Mount Vesuvius started erupting right in Mora Sr.’s opening postgame statement.
“Well, I’ll start off by saying this. Do not blame that game on the defense, OK? I don’t care who you play, whether it’s a high school team, a junior college team, a college team, much less an NFL team. When you turn the ball over five times—four interceptions, one for a touchdown, three others in field position to set up touchdowns—you ain’t going to beat anybody I just talked about. Anybody.”
“And that was a disgraceful performance in my opinion. We threw that game. We gave it away by doing that. We gave them the freaking game. In my opinion, that sucked. You can’t turn the ball over five times like that. Holy crap! I don’t know who the hell we think we are when we do something like that. Unbelievable.”
Following that statement, Bragg went on to fan the flames. Bragg’s question is not audible in most clips of Mora’s answer, but Bragg remembers it well. With the Colts at 4-6, Bragg figured Indy would need to win six consecutive games to finish 10-6 to make the postseason. He didn’t even ask a question so much as make a statement.
“I said, ‘Hey, you’re probably going to have to win out to make the playoffs,’” Bragg said.
Mora didn’t hear him. “What’s that?” Mora said.
Bragg repeated himself. “I thought, ‘Let’s see what his reaction to that would be,’” Bragg said. “And, well, you know the rest.
“As a sports reporter, you’re always looking for that locker room quote or the locker room comment that stands out,” Bragg says. “Not just, ‘Well, we came together and played well,’ that boring stuff you get 95 percent of the time. You’re looking for that comment. That is the sound bite of the year.”
Still, in 2001, “going viral” was not a thing. And it was impossible to understand how big the moment would become. “I don’t think anyone knew at the time that it was going to be one of the top five sound bites of all time,” says Mike Chappell, who has covered the Colts since they moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
When Mora’s press conference ended, he walked off to his right and asked Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz if he had a minute to speak privately with him.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, shit,’” Kravitz says. “‘What now?’”
Kravitz and Mora walked into a side room near the press conference room in the RCA Dome. Mora was concerned about how his outburst would be perceived—but not the PLAYOFFS line. “He was talking specifically about the dynamic between himself and Polian and Fangio, and Peyton Manning to a certain degree,” Kravitz said. “It had nothing to do with ‘playoffs,’ nothing at all.”
Indianapolis media members had waited for this moment. Mora’d had some famous tirades during his days with the New Orleans Saints, including one regrettable press conference where he used the term “diddly poo.”
But Mora’s presser after the 49ers loss was a new kind of event. Mora’s outburst seemed to signal the clear frustrations between the head coach and general manager, with Manning caught in the middle. That, at the time, was the big story. The PLAYOFFS moment was, at best, given equal billing.
The following week, Manning responded to Mora, saying he didn’t like being called out on national television. “I was fully responsible for that loss,” Manning said at the time. “[But] to be called out in front of the whole country, where that press conference is going to be played over and over again ... that bothers me. It really does.”
The legacy of that press conference is no longer really about Manning, though. Even in 2021, Mora’s voice is part of the intro on Dan Dakich’s sports radio show on The Fan in Indianapolis. Kevin Bowen, another radio host on The Fan, feels it’s the perfect clip for radio. The way Mora says it, throwing his head in the direction of the question being asked, means people see the clip in their mind’s eye when they hear it.
“You’re grabbing someone’s attention in the car that maybe has lost the train of thought of what they’re listening to because they’ve heard five minutes of commercials revolving around sports gambling, hair loss, and erectile dysfunction,” Bowen says. “Come back with Jim Mora’s voice, and it instantly attracts ears.”
Coors did a commercial series with coach rants from Mora, Green, and Herm Edwards, which only emblazoned those tirades in the national consciousness further. (The year the Mora commercial launched, in 2006, coincided with the season Manning’s Colts won the Super Bowl.) By the time social media networks arrived, it got another wind—the perfect bite-size, six-second clip built for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine (RIP), and now TikTok. The Coors commercial essentially is styled as a TikTok even though it was made a decade before the platform existed.
“PLAYOFFS” is engrained in the national sports consciousness so thoroughly it seems to have eclipsed the rest of Mora’s career. At the end of the 2001 season, Polian gave Mora an ultimatum: fire Fangio, or you’ll be fired yourself. Mora refused. The Colts then replaced Mora with Tony Dungy, drafted Dwight Freeney, and made nine straight playoff appearances, including one that ended in a Super Bowl win. Meanwhile, Mora never coached again in the NFL. His legacy includes being the first coach in the history of the Saints to finish with a winning record. But in 24 years coaching pro football, including 15 as a head coach, Mora never won a playoff game.
“My dad has hated that forever, that he’s remembered for that,” Mora Jr. said of the clip last week. But apparently the elder Mora has gotten over it. He has started taking requests on Cameo, a service where people can pay money for celebrities to send them a personalized video. He’s even willing to say playoffs—though not loud enough to warrant all caps.
Mora never won a playoff game, and funnily enough, neither has Bragg, the man who asked Mora the question. One of the many hats Bragg now wears at Belzer Middle is coaching the eighth-grade baseball team. But while he sets his team up to win, making the postseason isn’t part of his purview.
“We only have a league championship,” Bragg says with a laugh. “We do not have playoffs.”