Commentary

Bills' Schonert stretching the field, not the truth

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on Oakland's coaching situation, the state of the QB position, the Vikings' playoff chances and more.

Originally Published: September 24, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Turk Schonert, J.P. Losman and Trent EdwardsHoward Smith/US Presswire Under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, left, Bills starting quarterback Trent Edwards (5) is completing 67 percent of his passes and has a 96.6 rating through three games.
One of my favorite stops this summer was Bills minicamp.

Watching a June practice, I almost fell out of my seat when I saw Turk Schonert's offense. "That's Sam Wyche's old offense,'' I shouted to a Bills team official. Sure enough, Schonert, a former Bengals quarterback, was installing a lot of the motion plays he learned from Wyche, the former Bengals and Bucs coach. The offense was imaginative and fun to watch.

After practice, I had a great chance to stand around with quarterback Trent Edwards and Schonert and talk offense. I threw out the idea that a quarterback needs to average better than 6.4 yards an attempt to stretch defenses and force corners to backpedal. Edwards and Schonert both agreed that going downfield was important, but I loved Schonert's response regarding where he wants the yards per attempt number to be this season.

"Eight yards an attempt,'' Schonert said.

"Come on, tell me the real number,'' I responded.

"Eight,'' he said matter of factly. "That's where all the top offenses and top quarterbacks are.''

The Bills averaged 8 yards an attempt during the first two weeks of the season. After struggling a bit against the Raiders in Week 3, the Bills still have a lusty 7.41-yard average heading into Week 4, which is one of the reasons Buffalo is off to a 3-0 start and is averaging 26 points a game.

Under former offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, Bills quarterbacks weren't given the chance to go downfield. Schonert is selecting his long calls wisely and they are working. Lee Evans, who is moving around on the line of scrimmage to draw away some double-coverage, is averaging better than 20 yards a catch.

"We tried about six downfield throws against the Raiders,'' Schonert said. "We had one completion called back and a couple that just missed. But we're going to go deep.''

It's only three games, but Schonert is starting to establish himself as a name to watch among first-year playcallers, as is Jeremy Bates in Denver. It's good to see new minds in charge of offenses.

It's also good to see a coach make a bold prediction and back it up.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: John, what are scouts saying about the Bears' Tommie Harris? He is supposedly healthy and got a new contract in the offseason, but he hardly resembles the pre-injury player we last saw during the Bears' Super Bowl season.

Mark in Chicago

A: Health must be an issue, but wealth might play into it, too. Harris has been battling injuries for the past couple of years, and even though he's young (25), he seems to aging quickly because of the injuries. Harris is a great player who has pride and plays hard, but there is a prevailing thought in management circles that not all of the Bears who received rich contract extensions are playing up to those deals. Harris signed a four-year, $37.965 million extension this summer.

As a group, the Bears' defense is still young, but it's already well paid. With that in mind, it shouldn't rank 18th overall and 28th against the pass. To win, the Bears need dominating performances from Harris and others.

Q: Why don't I hear an outcry to change the rules protecting the QB? I think this rule is the obvious cause of Ed Hochuli's blown call two weeks ago. Change the rule before it destroys the game!

Kevin in Binghamton, N.Y.

A: I don't think Hochuli blew the whistle to protect Jay Cutler at the end of the Broncos-Chargers game in Week 2. To me, that was a symptom of what's happened in officiating in regard to quarterback-related fumbles since the fabled Tuck Rule decision that helped the Patriots advance to their first Super Bowl. Since the Tuck Rule, officials seem to be thinking incompletion first instead of fumble. They are trained to make sure the ball comes to the belt buckle before ruling fumble instead of incompletion. That's got to change: Balls come out of quarterbacks' hands. Some quarterbacks have small hands and sometimes the ball is wet and hard to handle.

An incompletion draws the quick whistle, and those plays can't be overturned until the NFL tweaks the rules during the offseason, which I think it will. As for your complaints, quarterback safety is a big issue, so the league and the officials need to do their best to protect the quarterback. Watching bad offenses with no quarterback destroys the game.

Short takes

To Chuck in Atlanta, the Colts are off to a bad start because of injuries. The loss of Bob Sanders and the release of defensive tackle Ed Johnson hurt the run defense. The offensive line has missed as many as three starters, so the running attack isn't a threat. Receivers are dropping ball. Still, the Colts are legit. They will get back into the race, but they will be more of a 10-6 or 11-5 team. … To Josh in Silver Springs Md., how can you say NFC wins over the AFC don't mean anything? We can blame injuries for AFC weaknesses or credit the NFC, but the bottom line is wins and losses. I see the NFC beating the AFC in inter-conference play this season. … To Aaron in Dao Xian, China, I just saw the Saints on Sunday against the Broncos. Injuries are killing them, but they are a good team. Injuries at linebacker and in the secondary have left New Orleans' defense in a tough spot. Yet you're right, there are some positives at running back. Reggie Bush has improved and Pierre Thomas can help. The key to the Saints' season is the playcalling of coach Sean Payton and the passing of QB Drew Brees. The guy has thrown for 980 yards in three games despite injuries to TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Marques Colston.

Q: I would love to see Raiders keep Lane Kiffin. He is the right person for the job. He is the tough, hard-nosed coach who doesn't take funny business -- kind of like Bill Cowher.

John in Austin, Texas

A: Kiffin has done a very good job over the past couple of weeks, but it's inevitable Al Davis will fire him at some point. They just don't have a very good relationship. Kiffin lives minute by minute, second by second in the Raiders' office. He should survive for the Week 4 game against the Chargers, but it may be difficult for Kiffin to stay after Sunday because the Raiders have a bye in Week 5 and it will be hard to beat the Chargers.

Q: What are you smoking? The NFC is nowhere near the AFC. You have to remember NFC teams play a lot of teams within the conference that are below average. Also, in the NFC you can be 7-9 and make the playoffs. What football have you been watching this year?

Jon

A: Living on the West Coast, most businesses have smoking bans. Plus, I don't smoke. Deep down I favor the AFC because it has put more effort into drafting quarterbacks in the first rounds, but reality is reality. Tom Brady isn't the Patriots' quarterback this season because of his knee injury, and the Pats are vulnerable even if they win the AFC East.

The NFC leads the AFC, 7-3, and the Steelers, Colts and Chargers have all lost games to NFC teams. The NFC East is 3-0 against the AFC. A dozen NFC teams are averaging more than 20 points a game, compared to only six in the AFC. I'm not making a Super Bowl pick, but that's the way things are trending out.

Q: Even though the Titans have a pretty easy schedule ahead of them, do you see them getting past the first round of the playoffs?

Tony

A: I would disagree that the Titans' schedule is fairly easy, but that makes their story that much better. Overall, the Titans play 10 games against teams that were .500 or better last season, and the only teams from that group that are struggling are the Texans and Browns. The Titans have physical games ahead against the Vikings, Ravens, Colts and Packers from now until Nov. 2.

Hard schedule or no hard schedule, I believe in the Titans. I had them as a sleeper team last season and they made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. After seeing them in training camp, I thought they had improved and would make the playoffs again. So far, they have lived up to expectations. Keep remembering the Titans. They are good.

Q: It has caught my attention that a number of teams have starting QBs over the age of 35. I feel this truly illustrates the fact that experience can outweigh the speed, strength and athleticism of the younger player.

Stuart

A: Assuming Damon Huard starts for the Chiefs on Sunday, the number is seven. All of a sudden, it's starting to look like the late 1990s when the league had a lot of seasoned quarterbacks leading teams. That scares me. The foundation of any good team is building around a good, young quarterback. Too many talented, young quarterbacks are washing out and many aren't getting to the age of 30.

My observation is the spread-option offenses of colleges are evolving in ways that won't help the NFL over the next couple of years. It's going to take these college quarterbacks longer to make the adjustment to the NFL because they operate so much in shotgun. Experience is a great value, but I think the older quarterback trend is a symptom of an illness at the position.

[+] EnlargeGus Frerotte
David Stluka/Getty ImagesEven if Gus Frerotte plays well, the Vikings will struggle to make the playoffs, says John Clayton.
Q: With the Minnesota Vikings benching Tarvaris Jackson, what do you think will happen during this season with Gus Frerotte? Will the Vikings make a run at the playoffs or will they just be better off trying to mold Jackson?

Sean in Grand Forks, N.D.

A: I think the Jackson benching was merited, but I think it will be hard for the Vikings to bounce back from the 0-2 hole and make the playoffs. The wild cards are going to come from the NFC East and possibly the NFC South, and go to teams with 10 or 11 wins. It's not out of the question for four teams in the NFC East to have 10 victories this season.

Here's the problem facing the Vikings: Over the past five years, no team playing a schedule tougher than .516 bounced back from 0-2 to win 10 games: The Vikings, based on last year's schedule, play a .551 schedule. That said, I think there is a reasonable chance for them to get to nine wins. They still have Adrian Peterson and a very good defense. Getting over the hump and getting that 10th win will be the problem under the circumstances.

Q: Is there a chance Atlanta might choose to run possibly the most frustrating offense in NFL history -- Michael Vick and Matt Ryan side by side? Think of the possibilities.

Steve

A: Once Matt Ryan went to the podium as the Falcons' No. 1 choice, the Michael Vick era ended in Atlanta. The Falcons are Ryan's team. The franchise will move on from Vick and let him go elsewhere, and it's possible Vick will get a chance somewhere else in 2009. With so many aging quarterbacks starting for teams -- it seems more young quarterbacks are failing than succeeding -- Vick will get some looks. Vick is working out and his agent, Joel Segal, said his client is benching 305 pounds and throwing the ball well. Before Vick can get back on the field for any NFL team, he has to be reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell. His Atlanta days are over, so it's time for him to work on his next job.

Q: John, I am a Rams supporter and must admit I am shocked about their terrible performance this year. When Scott Linehan took over, we were a .500 team and back on the rise. Do you think we are the worst team as far as talent? I believe we are at least middle of the road when it comes to talent. So it must be coaching and motivation to explain their horrible performance this year, right? .

Eric in Baltimore

A: Talent is a problem, but it obviously goes beyond that. During the offseason, I picked the Rams as one of my five surprise teams for possible turnaround, based on St. Louis having an easy schedule and an accurate, talented quarterback in Marc Bulger. However, I changed my rating on them once I watched the preseason. They often looked as non-competitive in the preseason as they are now. They are a mess. I like Linehan, but another loss or two will force a coaching change. Something is really, really wrong here.

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