Entering this season, the four starters in the Minnesota Vikings secondary -- cornerbacks Denard Walker and Brian Williams, free safety Brian Russell and strong safety Corey Chavous -- had combined for 21 career interceptions. Eleven of those belonged to Walker, who has never been regarded as a big-play defender in his six previous years in the league, but who certainly is a cut above steady.
LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers RB
It wasn't as if LaDainian Tomlinson was having a miserable season before Sunday but, when your team is winless and struggling, everyone tends to be lowlighted with the same brush. But in contributing to San Diego's first victory, Tomlinson painted the town red, and left the Cleveland defense (the same unit that surrendered a league-record 295 yards to Jamal Lewis on Sept. 14) more than a little red-faced. Tomlinson carried 26 times for 200 yards, including a tremendous 70-yard touchdown burst, and also added 21 yards on three receptions. Around the league, the victory might not mean much, but to Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, it quieted the critics for a week. The Chargers are now 13-10 in games where Tomlinson gets 20 or more carries. San Diego is 1-14 in those games in which he notches fewer than 20 carries.
Comments elicited from a pair of pro personnel scouts, one from each conference:
"Somebody ought to send (San Diego coach Marty) Schottenheimer a memo, telling him to keep running (tailback) LaDainian Tomlinson and quit worrying about hurting the feelings of (wide receiver) David Boston. In the Chargers' last game, Boston had 14 catches and the Chargers lost, in part because Tomlinson didn't get the ball enough. On Sunday, Tomlinson carried (26) times for 200 yards, and Boston had just two catches for 10 yards, but Marty got himself a win. 'Nuff said. By the way, from what we hear, Boston was fined again last week for missing a treatment or something. The Chargers could still go after $3 million of his signing bonus, because of a recovery clause they included in his contract, and they haven't totally eliminated that possibility. If Boston doesn't wise up soon, he's going to be writing them a fat check.
"Man, did you see the quotes from (San Francisco backup defensive end) Chidi Ahanotu after the 49ers laid it on the Bucs? Man, he killed his former teammates, really ripped them. Of course, it might mean more if Chidi was still a player in the league. Pretty ironic that he referred to (Warren) Sapp as a guy "just trying to hold on." I mean, that's the perfect description of Chidi, except he's not falling, he's already plummeted, man."
"The more I see Chad Johnson (of the Bengals) play, the more I wonder who is the better receiver, him or his cousin Keyshawn. I mean, Chad Johnson has what Keyshawn doesn't, big-play speed up the field. The more he matures, the better he gets, and he's not nearly as selfish now as his older kin. He's got better numbers than Keyshawn this year and, I think, dating back to last year, too. (Note: Since the start of the '02 season, Chad Johnson has 101 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. Keyshawn Johnson has 102 receptions, 1,444 yards and six touchdowns.) It's a tough call, because I love Keyshawn's competitiveness, but I might actually like Chad a little better."
"A couple of teams are already started to do some background work on (Iowa coach) Kirk Ferentz."
"The Falcons really made a bad buy in free agency with (cornerback) Tyrone Williams. The guy is slow and out of shape and didn't make himself any friends with the lax way he played on Sunday. His lack of hustle allowed (Saints wide receiver) Donte' Stallworth to turn a short little pass into a 69-yard touchdown. If it weren't for the financial investment, and the cap hit they would take, I hear the Falcons would cut his ass. I mean, they've already suspended him once and he's not exactly a favorite with his teammates."
"Hard to believe, watching him on Sunday, that (Houston tailback) Dominick Davis wasn't a bigger star at LSU. The guy, I think, is really going to be good. He had almost 200 total yards (actually 199) from scrimmage. (Former starter Stacey) Mack can kiss his job good-bye. With Davis and Tony Hollings, the Texans have a couple nice, young backs."
"He ain't exactly Randy Moss yet, never will be, but Santana Moss is starting to make some plays for the Jets. So maybe he's not the first-round bust I was starting to think he was."
That No. 3 wide receiver in St. Louis, the (Dane) Looker guy, is growing on me. He's starting to resemble a young Ricky Proehl, you know, a reliable guy who moves the chains for you and knows where the marker is on third down."
"OK, let's see how smart "The Mastermind" (Denver coach Mike Shanahan) is, now that he's got to try to win with Danny Kanell as his starting quarterback."
Tough call for Butch (Davis) now, huh? I mean (Kelly) Holcomb did what he always does in relief, light things up, but he did nothing as the starter for the first three games. On the other hand, Tim Couch really took a big step backward on Sunday."
Heard in the pressbox
No matter how the rest of the season plays out, the Miami Dolphins have already decided to make quarterback their top offseason priority. Even though the coaching staff goes to great lengths to defend Jay Fiedler, it knows, as does management that he isn't going to be a guy who ever gets the franchise to a Super Bowl. There has been plenty of rhetoric about Mark Brunell wanting to play in Miami, but don't count on it, for any number of reasons. The preference is to get a veteran for a year or so, maybe even (Brian) Griese if he reduces his financial demands, although no one is sold on him yet, either. But the push will be to get a quarterback in the draft, perhaps even the first round, or to trade for a young guy, like (Drew) Henson. There are financial ramifications, too, with Fiedler. He is due a $2 million option bonus by next March 14, is scheduled to earn a base salary of $5.775 million, and has a cap charge of $7.57 million. He's just not worth it. He's like the little girl with the curl. When he's good, he's good. But when he's bad, like (on Sunday), well, you know the rest. ... The Patriots are thrilled with the play of both their rookie defensive backs, free safety Eugene Wilson and cornerback Asante Samuel. Because the Pats knew Wilson was a solid hitter and a pure "ball" athlete, they gambled they could move him to safety, to replace the departed Lawyer Milloy. By the way, the Pats safeties have four interceptions this season. Milloy and Tebucky Jones, the starters in 2002, had zero last year. ... Convinced that Bill Romanowski will end up retiring because of his recurring concussions, the Oakland Raiders were shopping around for a linebacker before last week's trade deadline, but came up empty. ... Indianapolis tailback Edgerrin James has looked sharp in recent workouts, feels his back problem is fixed, and should return to action next Sunday in a home game against Houston. ... Bengals tailback Corey Dillon has been very slow to pick up the Cincinnati offense, even though the team has the same coordinator, Bob Bratlkowski, and hasn't made wholesale changes. Dillon is noticeably a step slower to the hole. ... Even with the big game by tailback Travis Henry on Sunday (31 carries for 167 yards and two touchdowns), the Buffalo coaches are antsy to get a look at Willis McGahee in a game situation. ... There's been a Mike Martz makeover of sorts in St. Louis. The Rams coach is really concentrating on balance and, even more so, on protecting his quarterback. You don't see any of those five-man protection schemes he always thought would work in the past. ... Jon Gruden may love Warren Sapp, but Bucs management and ownership has really had it with the guy. They're not going to spend a lot of money to keep him around. And ownership has been telling Gruden it wants no part of (defensive tackle) Darrell Russell if the former Raiders starter is ever reinstated from his indefinite suspension for drugs.
But in six outings in 2003, the Vikings quartet has combined for 14 interceptions, a pace that would project to 37 "picks" for the season. As a team, the Vikings have 16 steals. Bet the mortgage that Minnesota's starters won't hit 37 interceptions for the year. But if you want to make a winning wager down at the neighborhood watering hole, lay a few bucks that the opportunistic Vikings will top last season's interception total, which was, oh, 16 for the entire campaign. And bet that coordinator George O'Leary, at season's end, won't have to fib about his performance in '03, should he want to distribute his resumé for any job college or pro vacancies. O'Leary has transformed a unit that had only 23 takeaways in 2002 into the NFL's most larcenous bunch, a resourceful defense that suddenly possesses a big-play mentality, and has done so without benefit of any huge free agent acquisitions.
Sure, the Vikings imported Walker because they needed something at least vaguely resembling a shutdown corner. And the club took a chance on linebacker Chris Claiborne, a notorious overweight underachiever with Detroit last season, and used a first-round pick on defensive end Kevin Williams. But it wasn't as if owner Red McCombs opened the vault and allowed coach Mike Tice and O'Leary to spend lavishly on quick-fixes. Nope, a lot of the improvement in the Minnesota defense this season has come from within, starting with O'Leary, who has made great strides in rehabilitating his career following the infamous indiscretion which cost the former Georgia Tech head coach his Notre Dame dream job.
But certainly the upgrade accomplished by holdovers doesn't end with O'Leary and the metamorphosis he has enacted. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins is now a much better complement to partner Chris Hovan than he was in the past. Kenny Mixon is stouter and strong-side linebacker Henri Crockett is more consistent.
But nowhere has the refurbishing been more graphic than in the secondary where, a week before the season began, no one was quite certain of who was going to line up in what spots. A former undrafted free agent who spent 2001 on the practice squad, and started only two games in 2002, Russell was the key. Here is a guy who wasn't certain he would even make the roster, let alone start, to be honest. But when the Vikings staff made the decision to give him a shot at the free safety spot, it was like everything else fell into place. Williams was able, then, to move to cornerback. And the brainy Chavous, who had bounced back and forth between corner and free safety in his five previous seasons, settled in at the strong safety spot.
In the Sunday victory over Denver, each of the Vikings safeties had an interception, the fourth time in six games that has occurred. Russell has an interception, in fact, in all six contests this year and the safety tandem has combined for 11 pickoffs. No starting safety duet in the league had more than 11 interceptions in 2002 and just 11 safeties had five interceptions. It would be negligent not to mention the work of the Minnesota secondary mentors: Chuck Knox Jr., the son of the seventh-winningest coach in league history and a guy who should be in the Hall of Fame (and is, deservedly, on the preliminary ballot), and former league safety Kevin Ross, a pretty accomplished ballhawk during his 13-year NFL career.
Smoke and mirrors
File the Philadelphia Eagles' miraculous victory at The Meadowlands on Sunday, made possible by yet the latest implosion from the New York Giants not-so-very-special teams unit, under the "a win is a win is a win" category. But you might want to hold up, folks, on scheduling those victory parades down Broad Street. And, as for the Super Bowl ticket order, well, wait another week or two before sending those in, as well.
The 84-yard score by second-year veteran Brian Westbrook was, indeed, an incredible individual effort, aided by one dubious block, that looked borderline illegal. (But, hey, Dante Hall got away with a 93-yard punt return a couple weeks ago when Stevie Wonder couldn't have missed the clip that sprung him upfield.) But whether the Westbrook return salvaged a year that was just 76 seconds away from going over the edge, or was just a tease for all the Eagles who insist they are the best outfit in the division, remains to be seen.
Not to be a party-pooper here, but the return may have only been the football equivalent of treating cancer with a band-aid. Donovan McNabb threw for 64 yards and completed all of nine passes. He's now got two, yeah, two, touchdown passes in six games. Not exactly the stuff of which cover boys are made. If McNabb is hurting as much as insiders contend, then it might be time for him to take a week off, and allow either Koy Detmer or A.J. Feeley a start. At this point, McNabb must be infirm, because he can't be as inept as it appears. The Philadelphia wide receivers, amazingly, went through the game with just one catch, a six-yarder by Todd Pinkston. And that was against a Giants secondary playing without starting cornerback Will Peterson.
For the game, the Eagles had nine first downs and a measly 134 yards. Over the last two games, McNabb doesn't have 200 passing yards. Philadelphia is a city famed for booing the Easter Bunny. If the Eagles keep laying giant eggs, what do you think the response is going to be? Now, when the Giants snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on Sunday, it marked a reversal of fortune for an Eagles team that hasn't enjoyed much luck in 2003. But we'll withhold judgment, at least for now, on whether the game represented a turnaround.
As for the Giants, the loss may have added more grease to the skid being ridden by embattled head coach Jim Fassel. It may be time for Fassel to make one of his famous public guarantees about saving the season. But, alas, even that might not work.
Ellis drawing attention
Might it be that John Abraham, a two-time Pro Bowl performer and a New York Jets standout regarded as one of the NFL's best young "edge" rushers, isn't even the best sack threat on his own team anymore? Abraham's less-celebrated partner, left end Shaun Ellis, had another sack Sunday and is now tied for the NFL lead, with eight quarterback scalps.
Dating back to the 2002 season, Ellis now has 12 sacks, and Abraham has 12½. But Ellis, who like Abraham was chosen in the first round of the 2000 draft, played on the defensive strong side, where he is also counted on to anchor against the run. He routinely has to contend with a tight end, as well as the right offensive tackle, and some opponents have taken recently to "chipping" him with a fullback or H-back.
We bring up the issue of Ellis and Abraham, and their pass-rush abilities, because both ends can be unrestricted free agents after the 2004 season. So can quarterback Chad Pennington, who may return to the starting lineup next week, and who will command huge bucks. It's not a given that the Jets, who have to retain Pennington at all costs, can keep both ends as well. Abraham has long been regarded as the purer pass rusher, but Ellis has now emerged as arguably the club's best all-around lineman, and is beginning to draw the early attention of folks who actually study potential free agent veterans a year or two early.
Noted one personnel man on Sunday night: "(Ellis) isn't the true 'edge' guy like Abraham. (He) doesn't have great speed, doesn't exactly fly off the edge, but I'd be curious to see how he did away from some of the traffic he has to fight through. He's a pretty intriguing guy and, for whatever reason, he's suddenly developed a good motor. Two years ago, I thought he was a little bit of a dog. A year from now, though, I'm hoping the Jets can't keep him. Our team, if he keeps playing like this, would definitely be on him. He is still a young guy (26 years old) and he keeps getting better."
Even after Sunday's lopsided defeat, the Carolina Panthers are still 5-1 and still own a two-game edge over Tampa Bay, so we're still in the "believers" congregation in feeling that coach John Fox' team is a playoff-worthy bunch.
That said, the thud that emanated across The Carolinas on Sunday could well echo for a while, especially if opponents can successfully stifle the run in the manner the Tennessee Titans defense did. Quarterback Jake Delhomme threw for a career-best 362 yards, but most of that real estate came at "garbage time," when he was fattening his stats against a passive secondary. The name of the game for the Panthers, as Sunday again demonstrated, is get ahead and then pound at the enemy with the running game. But some chinks are beginning to show in the armor (or the shoulders) of tailback Stephen Davis, held to 20 yards on 11 carries, and Fox and coordinator Dan Henning might want to start spreading the load even more to second-year tailback DeShaun Foster.
We're not disillusioned enough by Sunday's setback to predict a skid for the upstart Panthers since, after all, no one expected a 16-0 season and they were the most suspect of the remaining undefeated franchises. But the Panthers go to New Orleans next Sunday and they struggled to defeat the Saints at home a couple weeks ago. On Nov. 9, they host the Tampa Bay Bucs, still seething from a Sept. 14 overtime loss at Raymond James Stadium. All we're pointing out is this: This is still a pretty fragile Carolina team, a young roster experiencing success for the first time in years, but a team with a very small margin of error.
This reality: Had the Indianapolis defense tackled a little better last week, or had the seeing-eye officials not overruled an interception by Colts defensive end Chad Bratzke, then Carolina would be on a two-game losing streak right now. The Panthers have just three sacks in two games and defensive end Julius Peppers went four sackless contests before getting a quarterback kill on Sunday. Time for the Panthers to get back on track or face the possibility of being derailed a bit.
Here's one that snuck up on people: Going into the Monday night Chiefs-Raiders game, the NFL is on pace to have 25 overtime contests in 2003. So what, you say? Well, for those with short memories, the league record for extra session is 25, established last season. And last season, now that we've jogged your cranium, you might recall all of the rhetoric directed at altering the overtime rules. So, why no such groundswell this season, after 10 playoff contests? Because not as many teams are winning on the first possession of the extra stanza. In six of the overtimes, both teams got the ball at least once each, and the team that won the toss went on to take the game just six times.
The lone overtime on Sunday was a decent microcosm of what has transpired to date. Miami won the toss, in somewhat controversial fashion, when the Patriots called "tails" and felt the coin came up in their favor. (Great line from New England linebacker Larry Izzo: "Man, the referee flipped over that coin like he was a magician or something.") And the Dolphins got two possessions in the overtime, with Olindo Mare pushing wide right a 35-yard field goal try, then Jay Fiedler tossing an interception on the second series. New England prevailed on an 82-yard touchdown pass.
No one screamed or yelped or hollered. Fact is, when it comes to overtime, there has been little dissent this year for the current rules. None of this might mean much for now, since we haven't even gotten to the halfway point of the 2003 season yet, and there could be plenty of overtime controversy lurking out there. If the current trend holds through the year, though, the proponents of overtime change will have a tough time selling alterations. The owners voted down overtime proposals this spring, coming off an '02 campaign filled with verbiage about change. There is some momentum at this point of the season for ditching instant replay. There hasn't been so much as a whisper, however, about revisiting the overtime rules.
Trouble in Green Bay
Brett Favre's all-time record in indoor stadiums (including playoff contests) dropped to 13-21 with Sunday's loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Edward Jones Dome. But it's hard to blame the Green Bay quarterback for the defeat. Favre completed 22 of 32 passes for 247 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception. His passer rating now in domed facilities is 80.2, versus a rating of 87.9 outdoors.
Interesting tidbit: For all of his depth perception problems indoors, Favre has a higher completion percentage in domes (61.9) than in outdoor facilities (60.7). But that's not the point and this is: Although he is not always on top of his game in his 13th season, Favre isn't the reason the Packers are now 3-4, and trailing first-place Minnesota by 3½ games overall and four in the loss column.
The Packers continue to make killer mistakes, like another costly fumble by tailback Ahman Green, and the defense isn't exactly stout. There have been injuries, for sure, but the unit just isn't stopping people. There is little pressure on the quarterback, the secondary isn't covering well, and only rookie Nick Barnett is doing much at linebacker. Versus the Rams, it wasn't Favre who doomed the Packers in a dome, it was at lot of other folks on the roster.
Despite his most prolific outing of the season, San Francisco wide receiver Terrell Owens dropped two would-be touchdown passes on Sunday. That follows an Oct. 12 game in which he had three drops. Word is that San Francisco brass is far more keen now on retaining pending unrestricted free agent Julian Peterson, a terrific linebacker, than it is keeping Owens around in 2004.
The AFC North now has no teams with a winning record, the only such division in the league with that dubious distinction, and every other first-place team is at least three games over .500.
Philadelphia right defensive end N.D. Kalu notched his first sack of the season on Sunday after getting eight in 2002. He now has as many sacks this season as Hugh Douglas, the man he replaced, and who is now playing in Jacksonville.
Despite his team's loss, Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown continued his hot streak, with his sixth sack of the season.
New Orleans wide receiver Joe Horn had eight catches for 133 yards on Sunday. In the same game, the Atlanta wide receivers combined for five catches and 70 yards.
The 45-yard touchdown catch by Cincinnati's Matt Schobel on Sunday was the longest scoring grab by a Bengals tight end in nine years.
As if the situation couldn't get much more dire, the Falcons probably lost star linebacker Keith Brooking for 3-4 weeks with a fractured transverse process in his lower back.
Atlanta has surrendered an average of 34.5 points per game in its current losing streak.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.