When the Detroit Lions signed unrestricted free agent cornerback Dre' Bly to a five-year, $25.5 million contract this spring, salary cap managers around the NFL gasped and some general managers mumbled a string of obscenities under their breath.
After all, Bly had started just 25 games in four seasons with the St. Louis Rams, and was a full-time starter for only his final year with the franchise that had selected him in the second round of the 1999 draft. Handing the undersized Bly a gaudy signing bonus check of $6.5 million, some critics privately suggested, simply represented the latest example of fiscal irresponsibility by Lions management.
And, by extension, another dubious move by Lions team president Matt Millen.
Seven months after the deal, the monetary ramifications of the Bly contract still remain a subject of debate around the league, but no one can question the wisdom of adding to the Lions secondary a player who is certainly in step with one of the NFL's most burgeoning trends -- defensive players scoring touchdowns.
Ever since his freshman season at North Carolina, where he established the ACC record for career interceptions before departing to the professional ranks, Bly has known what to do with a football when it lands in his hands.
"I've never felt like (offensive players) were the only ones on the field allowed to score," said Bly. "There's nothing in the rules that says defenses can't score touchdowns. I have always been a big-play guy. I mean, that's just my nature, you know?"
One of the few bright lights in Detroit in another dismal season, Bly has already scored two times this season, once on an interception return and last Sunday on a 67-yard fumble runback. Of his 18 career interceptions, Bly has brought four back for touchdowns, all on returns of 48 yards or longer. No one can deny that Bly knows the way to the end zone.
Through seven weeks of this season, even though defensive scoring hasn't received as much attention as it has merited, defensive players certainly are following Bly to paydirt. It's as if there has been a Pied Piper turned loose on defensive units leaguewide, and he is magically leading a parade of non-offensive touchdowns, and at a record pace.
There is no shortage of irony here, since special teams scores have been so universally highlighted in 2003, despite the fact kickoff and punt return touchdowns are well below the 10-year average for this juncture of the season. But if the number of defensive scores continues at the current pace, it's going to be hard to ignore the rate of turnovers, and the fact so many are being turned into touchdowns.
There were 46 interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2002 and 24 fumble returns that resulted in scores. Since 1990, the average number of interception returns for touchdowns is 50. The average for combined scores via takeaway in that stretch is 79.3 and the league is on pace for 103 in 2003.
"Coaches have always preached about (defensive) scoring," said Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who has one of three New England touchdowns on interception returns. "It just seems like more players have that big-play mentality now. The message has sunk in. You get a 'pick' and head for the end zone. Everybody wants a piece of the action now."
Notable is that 8.6 percent of the 477 touchdowns scored in 2003 have been by either an interception or fumble return. That is the highest ratio, to this point in the campaign, since the 1995 season.
The Patriots have four scores on takeaways and four teams have three touchdowns on either interception or fumble returns. Just nine defenses have failed to score a touchdown off a takeaway. Not surprisingly, those nine teams have a combined record of 18-38. The only team among that group with a winning record is Carolina.
Around the league
Rumors have begun again that the aforementioned Matt Millen could be in trouble if the inept Lions don't demonstrate dramatic improvement by the end of this season. The talk surfaced this week, not surprisingly, following a particularly uninspiring performance by Detroit in last week's lopsided loss to the Dallas Cowboys. For now, the annual rumors of Millen's imminent demise appear unfounded, and owner William Clay Ford still owes his top football guy for two more seasons beyond this one, at a total salary of $6 million. But if the slide continues for a team that has just six victories in its last 38 outings, something is going to have to change in The Motor City. And since Steve Mariucci is being paid a league-high $5 million per year, and possesses a contract that runs through the '07 season, he's not going anywhere any time soon. That said, even "Mooch" is surprised at how the Lions have yet to respond, and perhaps a tad surprised at the lack of young talent. Millen has been roundly criticized for awarding fat free agent contracts to player like Dre Bly and Az-Zahir Hakim, but a bigger problem might be the inability to reinvigorate a roster that is the league's second-oldest. Yeah, that's right, second-oldest. Older even, in terms of players 30 or above and also in average age, than the Oakland Raiders. One thinks of the Lions and conjures up visions of youngsters like quarterback Joey Harrington or wide receiver Charles Rogers. But the Lions have 17 veterans aged 30 or older and the average chronological age of the roster is 27.5 years. "Hard to believe," said one NFC personnel director, "that they could be so experienced and so ungodly bad." One irony for a Lions team whose running game is mired in quicksand: Tailback James Stewart reported this week that the rehabilitation of his shoulder injury is progressing nicely and that he feels he could have contributed in the second half of the season. The only problem is that the Lions, who have been forced to throw the ball nearly two-thirds of their offensive snaps, placed Stewart on injured reserve in August, ending his season. The Lions could have gambled that Stewart would get back on the field at some point this season, and kept him on the active roster, and their lack of foresight in that regard should not go unnoticed.
By now, everyone probably knows that Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank penned a letter to ABC Sports, apologizing for his team's shabby performance in the Monday Night game of Oct. 13. And most fans, even nationally, likely heard about how Blank bought a full-page ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, to issue an open letter to fans, in which he commiserated with their current pain. Word likely has filtered down as well about how Blank met with players and coaches on Wednesday and strongly suggested they cease airing their grievances to the media. But what most people don't know is that Blank, who has done a splendid job marketing a once moribund team but now risks losing much of the freshly-cultivated fan base, is reaching out to some outside the franchise in an effort to get the Falcons back on track. ESPN.com learned this week that Blank has invited a group of player agents, the size of the group unknown at this point (although three have confirmed to us they've received invitations), to meet with him the second week of next month. Blank is seeking constructive input from the agents and, it seems, will also use the session to get better acquainted with the group.
One name that keeps appearing on the radar screen in Atlanta, assuming Blank opts to make a coaching change at the end of the year, is that of Dennis Green. It makes sense, too, given Green's incredible track record of success, ability to work with a young and developing quarterback, and the fact he was once represented by current Falcons vice president Ray Anderson. But that last piece of the puzzle doesn't fit as snugly as it once did, since Anderson and Green aren't nearly as tight as they were a few years ago. When Anderson moved from the agent community into the Falcons front office, Green chose not to stay with the Octagon firm for representation. He bolted instead to IMG, which already is quietly trolling the waters for job possibilities in his behalf for 2004, working behind the scenes to discern who might be interested in one of its many high profile clients. As a member of the league's workplace diversity committee, Anderson isn't about to stand in the way of a Green candidacy in Atlanta, and his long relationship with the coach could still be a factor. But it probably isn't as significant an element as it once was. As for Green, he is very interested in coaching again, and figures to have multiple job offers after this season. But for those folks at the University of Arizona, who are quietly pushing a Green candidacy there, well, forget it. Green has little interest in the college ranks and, according to reliable sources, zero interest in trying to clean up the Wildcats' mess.
Tired of the annual Corey Dillon rants? Yeah, we know, his silly explosion earlier this week drew yawns across the league. It's one thing for Dillon, arguably the only veteran on the Cincinnati roster who hasn't yet bought in to rookie coach Marvin Lewis, to vent about wanting a change of scenery. But for Dillon to suggest that there might still be a way to deal him to another team, more than a week after the league trading deadline, just accentuates how full of himself this guy can be when he is disgruntled. Dillon certainly is misguided in believing the Cincinnati organization floated rumors that Dallas might have had an interest in dealing for him before the trade deadline. That rhetoric was little more than a few agent rumormongers floating bad information. As for contentions in this space over the last couple weeks, that Dillon won't be back in 2004, his venting this week only enhances those odds. Lewis didn't keep Takeo Spikes around, even though he could have matched the Buffalo Bills offer sheet to him this summer, and retained the linebacker. If Dillon wants out, the smart money is that Lewis will satisfy him, but probably not until after next June 1, when the salary cap hit won't be so high. On, yeah, one more thing that Dillon isn't thrilled about: His contract actually includes "de-escalators" in 2004 and '05, which will reduce his base salary if he doesn't rush for 1,500 yards in those seasons.
This isn't concrete yet, but look for the Buffalo Bills to activate tailback and first-round draft pick Willis McGahee soon, and for him to make his debut in a Nov. 9 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Bills have a bye after Sunday's game at Kansas City and that will provide plenty of preparation time for the former University of Miami star. Even with the re-emergence of tailback Travis Henry the last two weeks, the Bills feel that it will benefit McGahee to get some playing time this season. The rationale: Even if he gets just 7-10 snaps per game, the field time will enable McGahee to get through the initial mental hurdles and hang-ups that typically accompany any player returning from knee surgery. Any playing time McGahee gets this year, the Bills figure, will only make him that much better in 2004. Of course, Buffalo officials wouldn't feel that way unless they were convinced McGahee has recovered from the catastrophic knee injury, and that he is ready to go.
Miami coach Dave Wannstedt is playing coy about his choice of starting quarterback for Monday night's game at San Diego and won't announce whether Jay Fiedler or backup Brian Griese will get the nod. Neither player is completely healthy, with Fiedler trying to gut his way through a sprained knee ligament, and Griese still not fully recovered from the toe injury he sustained in preseason. But while the Dolphins remain cryptic over the identity of this week's starter, there is no camouflaging the fact the franchise intends to upgrade the position in the offseason. Fiedler has regularly missed wide-open receivers, most notably in the last two games, and hasn't had a 40-yard completion in four weeks. Griese, in his limited practice time, hasn't convinced coaches or personnel people that he is a long-term solution. So book this one: No matter how the rest of the season plays out, the Dolphins will make upgrading the quarterback spot their top offseason priority. Even though the coaching staff goes to great lengths to defend Fiedler, it knows 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 Griese if he reduces his financial demands. 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 with both quarterbacks. Fiedler 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. Griese is due a roster bonus of over $5 million.
Another team that might have to begin considering the long-term situation at the quarterback position is the Oakland Raiders, who figure to be without Rich Gannon (sprained shoulder) for a couple games, once they return from this weekend's bye. The 2002 league most valuable player is starting to show some age, hasn't gotten outside the pocket much in 2003, and has a contract that rises big-time in 2004. The performance of third-year veteran Marques Tuiasosopo in replacing Gannon on Monday night clearly was an encouraging one. An excellent athlete, Tuiasosopo allowed his natural abilities to take over against the Chiefs, demonstrated poise in the huddle, and playmaker potential. But the current staff isn't nearly as sold on Tuiasosopo as was the previous one, and that's why the next couple weeks could serve as a key testing ground. Remember, coach Bill Callahan didn't draft Tuiasosopo, he inherited him. It was former coach Jon Gruden who really championed the selection of the former University of Washington star in the 2001 draft. So the youngster has something to prove to Raiders coaches and team officials when he gets his first start in place of the ailing Gannon. If he doesn't impress during his audition, Oakland probably will make some sort of change for 2004, and might consider acquiring Kurt Warner, Mark Brunell or Drew Henson.
One quarterback who remains unemployed, would love to play again even as a backup, but can't scare up a job, is Jeff George. The strong-armed veteran, ESPN.com learned, had a tryout in Denver earlier this week, and threw the ball well. Then again, George will be able to roll out of bed at age 60, and still out-throw most quarterbacks in terms of arm strength and accuracy. The Broncos, to the surprise of no one, chose to sign Jarious Jackson, who had been with them during four training camps, before being released this summer. Jackson knows the offense and Denver, with Jake Plummer ailing and Steve Beuerlein gone for the year, needed someone familiar with its design. But the Broncos aren't yet married to Jackson and know George is available and anxious. In fact, George has not filed retirement papers, and he won't. "I'm still looking at next summer, figuring out where I might be able to get into a camp, and feel like I can play three or even four more seasons," George said. "I'm not giving up yet. I don't want it to end this way."
There is no denying that the relationship between Dan Snyder and Steve Spurrier has been up-and-down this season and no doubt that this week was a tension-filled one at the Washington Redskins complex. In fact, although the general feeling (including by us) was that Spurrier would stay at least three seasons through the 2004 campaign, the possibility he could be gone at the end of this year can no longer be completely ignored. But let's put one bad rumor to rest: The release of Rob Johnson on Wednesday, when he was replaced by "street" free agent Tim Hasselbeck, did not result from a Spurrier decision to bench Patrick Ramsey and use Johnson as the starter when the Redskins resume play on Nov. 2 following this week's bye. Neither Ramsey nor Johnson had been apprised of a switch and that's because none was forthcoming. At least in this case, Spurrier was in concert with the personnel department and Snyder, in deciding to jettison Johnson and go another direction. The move is a risky one, of course, since the Redskins now have no backup on the roster who has ever taken a regular-season snap, and given that Ramsey has been knocked out of the past two games. "But the feeling was that, with (Johnson), there was nothing there for the future," said one Washington insider. "He was doing the things he has always done in the league: holding the ball too long, taking bad sacks, all that stuff. We just figured that, in Hasselbeck, there might be something there to build on." The Redskins personnel folks have had their eye on Hasselbeck since training camp. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Washington's first-year pro scout Mike Kelly formerly worked in Philadelphia and is familiar with Hasselbeck from his days with the Eagles. There was no solid plan to sign Hasselbeck until he worked out so impressively on Wednesday, then the decision was made to dump Johnson, and sign the youngster two a two-year deal at the minimum base salaries. How long the Hasselbeck experiment lasts is anyone's guess, with Spurrier on Thursday mentioning the possibility of re-signing Danny Wuerffel, who was released at the end of preseason. Whether the Ol' Ball Coach is serious about Wuerffel, or merely tweaking Snyder by raising his name, remains to be seen.
Hard to discern the root source of the Redskins' pass protection problems, with the team having surrendered 26 sacks, and Ramsey being dumped 22 times. Is it maybe the college protection scheme Spurrier used at the University of Florida and felt would translate well enough to the NFL level? The tutelage of offensive line coach Kim Helton? Or a lack of personnel? The consensus around the league is that it's probably a function of all three elements. Spurrier has discovered there are serious flaws in his protection blueprint, Helton has never been regarded as one of the NFL's premier line mentors, and the players certainly have underachieved. Center Larry Moore, according to a couple pro personnel scouts, has been awful in 2003. There have been injuries at the guard spots and the club has been forced to shuffle there. And high-priced tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, especially the former member of that tandem, have not played well at all. Samuels had a tough first half of the '02 season, rebounded over the final eight games, but it struggling with speed rushers this year. The team has a lot of time and money invested in the tackles and expected much, much better from them.
During our research for a story on special teams that appeared on ESPN.com earlier this week, we queried coaches leaguewide for names of standout players on coverage units. A few names kept coming up and, foremost among them was Rod Smart of Carolina, who has been a standout cover guy and return man. Smart is, of course, the infamous "He Hate Me" from the XFL's one and only season. "He's a wild man," said one rival special teams coach. "He won't be blocked." Another name that frequently came up was that of Vikings safety Willie Offord. In camp, Offord battled for a starting job, but fell short in his bid. The second-year veteran, one Vikings coach pointed out, could have pouted about not getting a starting spot. Instead he took out his frustrations on opposition kickoff and punt return specialists. Smart and Offord might merit Pro Bowl consideration this year.
Speaking of the Pro Bowl, two fullbacks who certainly deserve consideration are Fred Beasley of San Francisco and Kansas City's Tony Richardson. The two have been very good for years but, because of politics and personal preferences, are always overlooked. But someone is out there as the lead-blocker for Priest Holmes on all those "stretch" plays and sweeps the Chiefs run, and Richardson is terrific in blitz pickup as well as in the lead-blocker role. As for Beasley, if you ever want to show your kids a videotape on how a lead blocker is supposed to clear the way for the tailback, get a copy of last Sunday's 49ers win over Tampa Bay. Beasley was nothing short of phenomenal, cutting down linebackers for tailbacks Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.
Kudos to St. Louis coach Mike Martz who, even in the absence of Marshall Faulk, has figured out how to better balance his offense. What's more, Martz has committed to protecting the quarterback far better than he did in the past, and isn't using as many four- and five-receiver patterns. It seems to have finally dawned on Martz, one of the game's truly superior offensive minds in terms of pass pattern design, that he can't block seven pass rushers with just five linemen. It also seems to have occurred to him that he is good enough to get receivers wide open through motion, formation and substitution packages. As a result, Marc Bulger is getting more time to throw the ball and is being hit less.
A few personnel men who saw our Monday note in "The Morning After" about Chad Johnson, phoned to second the motion that the Cincinnati Bengals standout receiver is catching up to older cousin Keyshawn Johnson in terms of overall performance. Dating back to the start of the 2002 season, Chad Johnson has 101 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. Keyshawn Johnson has 102 catches, 1,444 yards and six touchdowns. Unlike his more famous kin, Chad Johnson seems to have matured markedly over the past two years, and isn't screaming that he doesn't get the ball as much.
One personal note: Saturday marks the third anniversary of the death of longtime NFL scribe and close friend Steve Schoenfeld, mowed down by a hit-and-run driver as he crossed a street in Tempe, Ariz., and his loss doesn't get any easier to accept even as the years move forward. "Schoney" could be a royal pest, but he was universally respected around the league. No small feat, doing the scope of reporting he performed, and still being able to retain friendships with NFL and team officials. Three years later, I still miss the phone ringing every morning at 9 a.m., and I'm sure a lot of colleagues still do, too.
Punts: The release of Rob Johnson by Washington on Wednesday precipitated this mention: He has earned about $20 million-$22 million in bonuses and base salary over his nine-year career and posted just 12 victories . Now that the Colts have signed team president Bill Polian to a five-year contract extension, the move might accelerate talks with Peyton Manning. Among the issues raised by Manning during discussions was the future of Polian with the organization . Some observers in Carolina are wondering if tailback Stephen Davis is having problems with his shoulders again. Davis has logged a lot of carries and has certainly been slowed the past two outings . A tip of the cap is due Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, for the professionalism he demonstrated this week amid the news he will be replaced by Chad Pennington at some point Sunday . Some scouts feel that Rams No. 3 wide receiver Dane Looker is becoming a solid third-down player in the mold of former St. Louis wideout Ricky Proehl . If his return men continue to mishandle the ball so horribly, Dallas coach Bill Parcells will soon make a change and rookie Zuriel Smith could get a long stint on the bench.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.