Commentary

Gum flapping enhances rivalries

With technology's help, more NFL figures are speaking their minds

Originally Published: July 13, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

During my recent vacation, I was fascinated by New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs' critique of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Jacobs said on ESPN Radio 1050 in New York, "I don't think he's that good a passer, to be honest with you. I'm not a fan of Tony Romo. Keep him in the pocket, he's not that good. … His luck will be gone sooner or later. If you were to keep Tony Romo in the pocket, he's not that effective."

I don't agree with Jacobs because Romo has put up good enough numbers since becoming a starting quarterback, but I love the banter. With Twitter and sports talk radio, we're entering an interesting phase in the NFL. We're hearing more smack talk. New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has picked spats with just about everyone in the AFC East. Channing Crowder of the Miami Dolphins has replied to Ryan, and you know teammate Joey Porter will have something to say.

What I like about this smack talk is the chance to build rivalries and enhance existing ones. Ryan's entry as a head coach in the AFC East is making this division more feisty and interesting. Brett Favre as a Minnesota Viking would make the NFC North more interesting. The NFC East is great, but more smack talk makes it that much better.

Let's go to this week's mail.

From the inbox

Q: I know everyone's talking about the hole at WR for the G-Men, but why aren't I hearing anything about OLB? Are Chase Blackburn and Gerris Wilkinson really long-term answers? With Osi Umenyiora back, will Mathias Kiwanuka see any time at strongside LB?

Mo in Albany, N.Y.

A: Obviously, Chase Blackburn and Gerris Wilkinson aren't the long-term answers at outside linebacker because the Giants invested in a $5 million, five-year contract to bring in Michael Boley. The good news for the Giants is that they are good enough to get by. But Boley is coming off hip surgery and has been suspended for the opener for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy.

Give the Giants credit for upgrading the defensive line to help out the linebackers. The additions of Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty were more important in the big picture because if the linemen perform well, the linebackers are likelier to be successful. I would worry if the Giants had stood pat and not signed any players. By bringing Boley, Canty and Bernard onto the roster, they showed they're willing to spend money to do well this season.

Q: With free agency and trades, why is so much emphasis put into strength of schedule? Other than the consistently top teams like Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis, there are surprises each year. Who would have thought Arizona, Atlanta or my squad (Miami) would've been division winners last season? That's why I don't understand the thought that the Dolphins automatically will be worse off this year thanks to a strength of schedule that can't be accurately predicted.

Will in Washington, D.C.

A: You know you're hitting the wrong guy when you ask about the schedule, because I'm probably the biggest promoter of the schedule concept. So bear with me while I explain myself. You can forecast the surprise teams by looking at the schedule. The Dolphins, who played teams from the AFC West and NFC West last season, had an easier chance to win compared with teams in the NFC East, which had tougher schedules. The Cardinals won a division that had three losing teams. Each year, I come up with more accurate ways to forecast the surprise teams because I base my predictions on schedules and quarterback play.

You are correct in thinking that good teams survive tough schedules and that doing so will be the Dolphins' test this season. Schedules in pro football are like ballparks in baseball. The ballparks have different dimensions. In the NFL, some teams have easy schedules while other teams have tough schedules. But the teams with the great quarterbacks usually win regardless of whom they play.

Q: Are the Chicago Bears a true No. 1 wideout from being the scariest offense in the NFL? I know it sounds strange to string the words "Bears' offense" and "scariest" together, but I mean scariest in this sense: Any of the skill position players could score on any play, and all of them warrant attention. Devin Hester needs to be watched for deep speed alone. If you have to double-cover a Brandon Marshall or a Plaxico Burress at the same time, will Greg Olsen post a Tony Gonzalez-like 90-catch season over lonely linebackers? Also, where does Matt Forte filter into the [opponent's] defensive game plan at that point? Do you play the coverage angle and give Forte room? Do you stack the box and blitz Jay Cutler, running the risk that someone with explosive potential is open early? What would a team do?

Braden in New Brunswick, N.J.

A: Even if the Bears get a No. 1 receiver, their offense will never be confused with anything scary. All it needs to be is good. Hester is a scary threat, but he's scarier as a returner than a receiver. Forte should be a good running back for the next few years, but he won't outrun Adrian Peterson or make linebackers brace for pain like Brandon Jacobs. Call it progress. The Bears made a giant step forward in acquiring Cutler, who's a great talent. For decades, the Bears have settled for second or third choices at the quarterback position. Fans have been waiting patiently for them to develop, but they haven't. Cutler's arm should prevent defenses from loading the box against the running game, and that should make the offense more exciting. As for adding a No. 1 receiver, that won't happen this year.

Q: In your last mailbag, you talked about how teams need to pay quality prices for quality receivers (players). What do you think about this trade: Anquan Boldin to Philly, Julius Peppers to Arizona and draft picks (from Philly) to Carolina? Carolina has a great base to keep contending for the next few years, Philly needs to win now and Arizona sorely needs a threat in its front seven that will scare people.

Shane in Los Angeles

A: None of that works. The Cardinals want to keep Boldin. They also don't want to pay a linebacker [defensive lineman Peppers has expressed a desire to move to that position] $16 million, and that's what Peppers is making. They can't get anything done with Karlos Dansby, who is a pretty good linebacker. The other problem is the Panthers are in win-now mode just as much as the Cardinals and Eagles. They won't give up their best player for draft choices. Now you see why trades move slowly in the NFL.

Q: What is the deal with Koren Robinson? I thought he did pretty well last season in Seattle considering its QB situation last year. Will it take a boatload of injuries for him to get a job, or is he done?

J.B. in Charlotte, N.C.

A: Robinson is staying in shape and waiting for a team to call. Injuries in Seattle or Green Bay could put his name on speed dial. I don't think it will take a boatload of injuries, but it will take a few to open some doors for Robinson. He did well in his role for Seattle last year. The biggest thing is that he appears to have cleaned up many of off-the-field problems.

Q: Losing an ILB on one of the best defenses in recent memory would hurt almost any team, but I don't see it that way [with the Steelers]. As blasphemous as this may sound, I was not disappointed to see Larry Foote go because it opens up the spot for Lawrence Timmons to play full time. Do you see a breakout year for Timmons this year? He's a freak of an athlete and will fit perfectly into [defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau's system.

Nate in North Huntington, Pa.

A: It would have been nice if the Steelers had the cap room to keep Foote, but Timmons was drafted to replace Foote. That's the great part about the way the Steelers develop their linebackers in the 3-4. They don't have to rush them into starting early. LaMarr Woodley, the second-round pick, already is developing himself into a pass-rushing star on the outside. Timmons has great range and speed. I love his closing speed on tackles. It was time for him to start, and now he gets his chance.

Q: As a Seattle Seahawks fan, I am curious to know where my team stands in regard to Super Bowl contention. Obviously it would be a stretch to expect the Seahawks to make a deep playoff run this season, but a division title would be a step in the right direction. Do you see the Seahawks as potential Super Bowl contenders in the next few seasons (pending Matt Hasselbeck's health)? Alex from New York

A: The great part about being in the NFC is that any team that makes the playoffs is in contention. As long as Hasselbeck stays healthy, the Seahawks should contend because the NFC West is a health clinic. Kurt Warner stayed healthy last year, and the Cardinals won the playoffs. When Hasselbeck stays healthy, the Seahawks win the division. Last season, Hasselbeck was hurt. As long as he stays healthy, the Seahawks should get back to averaging at least 24 points per game. That should put them right into contention. Once the playoffs come, the NFC representative in the Super Bowl is usually the healthiest or hottest team in the conference.

Q: Let's say Brett Favre signs with the Vikes. Regardless of how he plays and even if he plays for them in 2010 as well, what will the Vikings do about the quarterback situation for long term? Will they draft someone after this season? Will they address it in free agency? (I think Jason Campbell will be a free agent.) How do you think the team will resolve this?

From Ajay in Oakland, Calif.

A: Great question, but wasn't that the same question the Jets were asking a year ago? Maybe the Vikings can get lucky and draft a first-round quarterback who can be the long-term answer. The draft is a better place to find that quarterback than free agency. The Vikings put themselves into this position by putting all their eggs in the Tarvaris Jackson basket. The Jets, to a certain degree, did the same thing with Kellen Clemens. The Vikings will sign Favre and will deal with the future next year.

Q: Last year, the Steelers won a Super Bowl despite having one of the worst running games in the league (if not statistically, at least effectively). They picked up a short-yardage specialist in the draft but appear ready to rely on the inconsistent Willie Parker as the featured back once again. Is there any reason to think the running game will be any better this season, or will the Steelers be forced to rely on the Big Ben "duck-and-chuck" offense to move the ball again this season?

Bill in San Francisco

A: The reason the running game should be better is Rashard Mendenhall. He is being groomed as the running back of the future but doesn't have the pressure of taking over the No. 1 role this season. Willie Parker will be the starter, but Mendenhall has looked good so far this offseason. Mendenhall is a bigger back who can allow the Steelers to revert to a more physical running offense. Parker isn't big enough to be physical with his running style. He is good, but the style of the running game has to be different when he starts. You'll see the transition in the next two years.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer