Commentary

Gonzalez will play a key role in Chiefs' future

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the future of Tony Gonzalez, Bryant McKinnie's suspension, Jeremy Shockey and more.

Originally Published: September 3, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Tony GonzalezSteve Mitchell/US PresswireTony Gonzalez will play an important role as a reliable pass-catcher as the Chiefs rebuild.
History hasn't been kind to rookie quarterbacks.

Kyle Boller of the Ravens was the last rookie quarterback to draw an opening-day start, in 2003. He completed 51.8 percent of his passes on what turned out to be a 10-6 team. His stats were horrible. He threw for only 114.5 yards a game. He had seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now he's at the end of disappointing Ravens career, on injured reserve and facing possible season-ending shoulder surgery in what will be his final year in Baltimore.

That's why it's hard to congratulate Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens for getting opening-day starts. It's like an actor being handed a script to a disaster movie. Happy endings are hard to find in disaster movies.

David Carr of the Texans is the only rookie quarterback since 2000 to start 16 games in his first season. After a few years of being pounded behind an expansion team's offensive line, Carr was so beat up he wasn't effective. Joey Harrington of the Lions started 12 games as a rookie, completing 50.1 percent of his passes and throwing 16 touchdown passes. The Lions gave up on him, he had bad stops in Miami and Atlanta and he just lost a tryout bid to Todd Bouman in Baltimore on Monday.

Expectations for Ryan and Flacco aren't great. Their teams are coming off double-digit loss seasons. Both teams are trying to re-tool their offensive lines. Flacco won the starting job only because Troy Smith and Boller weren't healthy.

Expect low numbers for both quarterbacks. The average rookie quarterback completes 53 percent of his passes, but both might be a little bit better than that. The growing trend in passing offenses has been to try shorter, safer passes, so it's possible Ryan and Flacco could be at the 56 percent level. Trent Edwards of the Bills, Matt Leinart of the Cardinals, John Beck of the Dolphins and Matt Moore of the Panthers completed 56 percent.

Yardage numbers won't be good. Rookie quarterbacks average less than 200 passing yards a game. Except for Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers in 2004, rookie quarterbacks throw more interceptions than touchdown passes, and very few throw more than 10 to12 touchdown passes. Quarterback ratings are usually in the 60s or 70s.

Where does that put offensive scoring? Expect between 14 and 17 points a game.

The key for Ryan and Flacco is surviving the season without too many injuries and getting as close as possible to six or seven victories.

That might be hard to accomplish.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: The Chiefs are a good two years from being a playoff team, in my opinion, and by that time Tony Gonzalez will be about finished. My question is: What would his trade value be at the trade deadline this year? This team has a lot of growing pains, and even though that leaves Brodie Croyle thin at options, we have to look at ways to gain additional draft picks next year, and he seems to be all we have left with value. I would think teams like the Titans, Bucs, Giants, Vikings, etc. who are close would be willing to make this kind of move. It would be great for Tony to have a chance at the show, and great for us to grab some future picks.

John in Huntington Beach, Calif.

A: I wouldn't trade Gonzalez, because somebody has to catch passes for Brodie Croyle or whoever might eventually come in as the quarterback of the future. The Chiefs don't have enough pass-catchers now. Dwayne Bowe turned out to be the best of the rookie receivers last year. Devard Darling hasn't shown me enough yet to say he is a solid starter. The Chiefs are trying to build a team, not totally dismantle it. A good draft next year could get the team ready for a playoff run either in 2009 or, better yet, 2010. Gonzalez probably has three or four good years ahead of him. Getting draft choices is one thing, but building a team is another. To me, he's untouchable. As for his trade value, it might be the No. 2 and No. 5 the Saints gave up for Jeremy Shockey.

Short takes

To Mike in Easton, Pa.: I know you are a loyal Giants fan, but you can't think that the Giants can lead the league in sacks like last year after losing Osi Umenyiora AND Michael Strahan. No team is deep enough to replace 22 sacks. I figure they will have a 40-sack season. ... To Jason, a Giants fan, Kevin Boss may have looked "just as good" as Jeremy Shockey during the Giants' Super Bowl run, but he's not Shockey. I notice a big dropoff in tight end blocking, particularly on short-yardage situations. Boss might end up being a 50-catch tight end, but Shockey still has 70-catch ability. ... Brian in Bloomington, Il, wants to expand the postseason and allow more teams into the playoffs. I say no. It would allow 8-8 or maybe 7-9 teams to get in. That would weaken the playoff process. Twelve playoff teams works for now. ... To Ben in Baltimore, the Steelers' offensive line has to prove itself, but they haven't been horrible in the preseason. They have a chance. ... To Aaron in Philadelphia, Kevin Curtis is probably going to be out four to six more weeks following sports hernia surgery, but the team isn't giving a timeline. Reggie Brown is week-to-week with a hamstring. ... David in Monterrey, Mexico, loves the idea of going to a 17-game schedule and he wants to designate the extra game in a neutral site. The league would love to go international with the 17th game. Mexico would be included in that mix. Still, I think the owners would like that extra home game revenue for a 17th game every other year. That has the best chance. . . . Derrick J from Naperville wonders why the Bears didn't improve their offensive firepower or add pieces to their ailing offensive line. They tried patching with Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd and they thought Chris Williams could take over a left tackle. Whoops. They tried to put a Band-Aid on a major wound.

Q: John, settle an argument for me: Do you think the Packers were wise not to give DT Corey Williams the money he wanted and instead trade him to the Browns?

Neal

A: Not sure which way you bet, but I think I might have kept him. The Packers appeared to have a lot of depth at defensive tackle heading into the offseason. But Justin Harrell was too slow to come off back problems and is now lost for the first six games. Ryan Pickett didn't have a training camp because of injuries. Johnny Jolly was hurt, but he's healthy now. Clearly, the Packers didn't think Williams was worth the six-year, $38 million contract he received. A second-round choice for him was good compensation. Still, defensive tackle is a hard position to fill. I watched how teams scrambled after the final cuts to find defensive tackles. Remember how the Bears went from a deep defensive tackle team to a thin one last year once they let Tank Johnson go and had all of their injuries? If it were me, I would have kept him. The Packers enter the season with a three-man defensive tackle rotation.

Q: Given that the Vikings' ownership made a well-publicized commitment to "character" a few years back, do you think Bryant McKinnie is on his way out? And if Jared Allen should relapse -- and most recovering people do at some point -- is the team prepared to allow him another chance, or will he be let go? I've been a Vikings fan since the Joe Kapp days, and the last few years have been soooo frustrating. This is a playoff team if they get even average play from the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Bernard Berrian is at least a legitimate NFL starting wide receiver, but there have to be at least 25 other teams with a number 1 better than him. (Hmmm … come to think of it, when Brad Childress was with the Eagles, they were trying to get to Super Bowls with James Thrash and Todd Pinkston. Can we call this a pattern?) And Tarvaris Jackson seems like a David Woodley-type. Do you believe that this is more than a 9-7 team? I would like to, but I just can't see it.

Steve in Binghamton, N.Y.

A: Bryant McKinnie has one of the best bodies in the league to play left tackle. At times, he can dominate. But this is it. He can't screw up again. The four-game suspension is a wakeup call and a warning. If he has another incident, he probably will be traded or let go. I think that's understood. The Jared Allen trade was a calculated risk, but a good one. Players make mistakes when they are young. Allen seems more mature than he was a couple of years ago. He's a great teammate and a great player. It's still a major question whether Bernard Berrian is ready to be a true No. 1 receiver. I don't know if there are 14 true No. 1 receivers in the league anymore. It's one of the thinnest positions in football. To get any threat at receiver, the Vikings -- or any team for that matter -- had to gamble big money. Look at all the failures at receiver already. Javon Walker is struggling and Drew Carter is out for the season in Oakland. D.J. Hackett has been banged up in Carolina. The list goes on and on. The Vikings are being bold and trying to make a big playoff run. It still comes down to whether Tarvaris Jackson is ready to be a playoff-caliber quarterback.

Q: John, why is the Jeremy Shockey trade viewed as such a positive in New Orleans? The Giants went on a great run without this guy and he has been nothing but a cancer in the Giants locker room. With all the weapons in our offense, he won't be used much, so he'll complain about not getting the football.

Kevin in Denham Springs, La.

A: Don't underestimate Shockey's value. First of all, he will help as a blocker. Even though the Giants had the Super Bowl run after his injury, they lost about 30 yards off their rushing totals with Shockey on the sideline. Second, though he has a hot temper, he's a good teammate. The guy plays hard and teammates like him. He might have given Tom Coughlin a few anxious moments, but he cares about winning. Third, Sean Payton has some great plans to get him more involved in the passing offense in New Orleans. Often, the Giants kept him near the line of scrimmage to help with blocking. Payton will get him downfield more, which plays to his strength. I still worry about some of his leg and foot injuries. Shockey has been banged up for years. But there is nothing wrong with having too many weapons.

Q: John, quick question from a lifelong Seahawks fan. How come they get no respect? Why do most journalists tend to overlook them? Every year it's the Niners, Cardinals or Rams coming on strong -- yet every year Seattle wins the title and goes to (at least) the second round of the playoffs. Every year in preseason reviews it's the Cowboys, Eagles, Packers or Saints contending for the NFC title, but the Hawks usually are not even mentioned! I know the Seahawks might be flawed, but what other teams in the NFC can you say are significantly better than the Hawks?

Elias in Omaha

A: I live in Seattle so I don't ignore them, but it's true the Seahawks seem to be an afterthought in the national picture. Whoever wins the NFC South seems to be equally ignored. The Seahawks play in an easy division, so it's hard to sell rivalry games on national TV. About three or four years ago, a Rams-Seahawks matchup might have drawn some national interest. Not any more. For a couple of seasons, the 49ers-Seahawks game might get prime-time consideration. Not any more. If the Seahawks make the playoffs, more attention might slip their way because Mike Holmgren is in his final season in Seattle. Once again, though, the Seahawks can try to sneak up on everyone.

Q: Tennessee had a good run last year to make it to the playoffs with average receivers. Do you see Tennessee finally obtaining a top receiver either through a trade or possibly next year's draft to get them over that wild-card hump and possibly back to the Super Bowl?

A: Face it, top receivers are hard to find. As critical as I have been about the Titans' shortage of top receivers, I couldn't provide them with a game plan. It was like teams in 2007 that needed tight ends. Too few were available. No receivers went in the first round of the draft, and the best one I've seen from the list of 10 second-rounders is DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. The best available in free agency were Walker and Berrian, and they might have not changed things significantly in Nashville. The Titans probably made the right move in getting Justin McCareins. He knows the system and he's a decent-sized target.

Q: Now that the preseason is over, Jason Peters has failed to show up in Buffalo. What is the last day he can show up and still be on the roster for Week 1? Can the Bills drag their feet if they want with physicals or something, to basically hold out on him if he waits until the absolute last minute?

Jason in Missoula, Mont.

A: He needs to show up before Saturday at 4 p.m. to be a consideration for the first game. Once he arrives, the team is given a two-week roster exemption to get him ready to play. The Jaguars had that option with first-round holdout Derrick Harvey, but they put him on the active roster and got him on the field for a series in the final preseason game. Peters would have to show up for the final six games to have this season count so that his contract doesn't roll over to next year. Something has to give. The line lacks spark without him. Plus, Peters is losing $15,000 a day and is ready to start losing game checks.

Q: I read an article the other day about trying to find a way to make the final games of the season more important to avoid situations in which resting starters by one team can ruin another's chance to get into the playoffs. I was wondering if anyone has given any thought to the idea of changing the season so that the first 10 games are against teams outside the division, while the last six weeks of the season become strictly division rivalries? I would propose to power-seed them based on the previous year's rankings in the division. Example (AFC South): Week 12: Colts at Texans, Jags at Titans. Week 13: Texans at Colts, Titans at Jags. Week 14: Colts at Titans, Jags at Texans. Week 15: Titans at Colts, Texans at Jags. Week 16: Colts at Jags, Titans at Texans. Week 17: Jags at Colts, Texans at Titans. By doing this you would maximize the chances of the underdog winning the first leg, hence making the second leg more important. Plus the last games of the season would be between the teams fighting to win the division, and the two teams that are either fighting for a wild-card spot or just for pride -- either way, the fact that they're division rivals would make people less likely to want to lose them. Anyway, sorry this e-mail went on so long. I was just wondering what your thoughts were on this.

Carlos in Lexington, Ky.

A: No matter how you spread out division games, there are only six division games per season for a team. Here's the potential problem with putting division games in the final six weeks. First, from the feel of the season, it would make the first 10 games look like the preseason. But let's say we have one of those seasons in which the AFC would dominate the NFC in interconference games as they did a few years ago when the AFC won 44-20. You'd have a lot of 7-3 AFC teams battling each other. That would be great. But you'd also have a lot of 4-6 NFC teams battling each other. That would be ugly.

Q: I know the vogue pick this year is the Eagles in the NFC East but why haven't more analysts dissected their weaknesses? This is an 8-8 team that last made the playoffs with a starting QB not named McNabb and they had very few injuries last year on which to blame a mediocre season. No game-breaking wideouts, an aging defensive corps with unknowns in their front seven. Doesn't seem to be a really impressive team on paper for analysts to pick for a resurgence.

A: On paper, they look better than you think. Donovan McNabb looks better than ever. The team may not have great pass-receiving weapons, but they have more options with the addition of DeSean Jackson. L.J. Smith is back as a red-zone threat. Technically, they have the seventh-youngest starting defense in the league. Their linebacking corps is young and mobile. They have six pass-rushing options when they are all healthy. Some of those unknowns in the front seven will become knowns if they make a playoff run.

Q: Is the Vikes' secondary going to be better than a year ago with the addition of Jared Allen, and should the Vikes be worried about how the preseason turned out?

Sgt. Kingsley in Iraq

A: The acquisition of safety Madieu Williams was supposed to help in the secondary, but he's going to miss the first month of the season with back problems. Other than that, it's almost the same unit as last year. Tyrell Johnson, the second-round pick, will start at free safety. He's raw. Marcus McCauley should improve as a third cornerback. He's got great coverage skills, but he was a little lost as a rookie. Benny Sapp is a solid backup. Once Williams gets back, he should help in coverage. Because teams won't run on the Vikings, they have to do everything they can to improve their pass coverage units.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer