Morning After: Saints marching
Some post-Week 9 questions: Are the Saints ready to make a playoff run? Is Steve Spurrier on the way out in Washington?
The schedule is now actually slightly beyond the halfway point, with 129 of 256 regular-season games in the books, and there are 15 franchises with losing records. So if you're picking one of the those sub-.500 teams to rebound from the wrong side of the ledger book, to still make a legitimate run for a playoff spot over the final two months of the season, which club would you select? Us, we're looking at the New Orleans Saints, who are 4-5 but perhaps poised to get on a bit of a run.
We know, even for a blind man, throwing against the Atlanta Falcons secondary would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But this has been such a difficult season to this point for Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Donovan McNabb, with some of the criticism coming from this corner, that the man is due some props. McNabb threw for 312 yards on Sunday at the Georgia Dome and, no, this is not a typo, actually had a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, his first of the year. The performance still doesn't absolve McNabb of some culpability for the team's poor start. But the win moved the Eagles to 5-3, was the club's fifth victory in the last six games, and McNabb seems to be warming up now for the stretch run over the next two months.
Comments elicited from two AFC scouts:
|Heard in the pressbox|
As has become their newest wont, the Saints busted Tampa Bay again on Sunday afternoon, something they accomplished twice in 2002 against the Super Bowl champions. New Orleans absolutely owns the Bucs and, if the Saints played every week with the same passion they demonstrate every time they see an opponent dressed in pewter (or, P-U-ter, given the lack of consistency Tampa Bay has exhibited in a year when it has yet to win consecutive outings), they would be a tough team to beat.
Actually, of late, the Saints generally haven't been the same patsies they were earlier in the season. Since their 55-21 loss to Indianapolis on Sept. 28, when the Superdome required fumigating even more than some Bourbon Street suds joints, the Saints have won three of five games. Yeah, we know, not all that impressive. But both of the defeats were against Carolina, each of the two contests was winnable, and the Saints would have beaten the Panthers in overtime two weeks ago had tight end Ernie Conwell simply sealed defensive end Julius Peppers on a fourth-and-inches gamble by coach Jim Haslett.
The NFL has actually apologized to the Saints for three botched officiating calls in that emotion-wrenching overtime loss but, as much as we like the New Orleans folks, we're not going to commiserate. Fact is, the pitiful officiating or not, the Saints should have beaten the Panthers in their second divisional matchup of the year.
But all of that is water, or Mississippi River bilge, under the bridge. What lies ahead for Haslett and his team, a bunch left for dead only a few weeks ago, is opportunity. Would the Saints be far better off had they bested the Panthers two weeks ago? You betcha. Adjust the records of the two clubs to reflect a New Orleans victory in a loss Haslett called the toughest of his career, and the Saints would be 5-4 and the Panthers 5-3, just a half-game differential. Reverse the outcome of that game and Carolina would be in the midst of a three-game losing streak, reeling, and facing an ominous schedule.
But the Saints can't concern themselves with what might have been and instead must focus on what still can transpire in 2003. After next Sunday's bye, the Saints resume play, renewing the annual bloodletting with the Falcons in The Big Easy, and play four of the final seven games at home. The road games are at Philadelphia, Washington and Jacksonville, not exactly fearsome.
The coming off-week will provide some of New Orleans' wounded a little more time to heal. One of the NFL's most potentially explosive offenses is starting to shows signs of life and tailback Deuce McAllister is re-establishing himself as a true all-around star. Enigmatic quarterback Aaron Brooks has settled down. The defense will soon get some starters, like right end Darren Howard, back onto the field.
New Orleans has folded in December each of the last two seasons. Maybe this is the year, huh, that the Saints get as hot as industrial-strength Tabasco sauce at the end of the year?
Put the thumb of your throwing hand on the basement work bench, lift a sledge hammer, and then bring it down on your opposable joint. Now you know how Brett Favre probably felt going into Sunday night's game at the dread Metrodome, his personal house of horrors. Whether or not Favre can rally the Packers over the second half of the season remains to be seen. But the Green Bay 2003 season, for all intents and purposes, would essentially have ended on Sunday evening minus a victory.
By posting a win for only the third time in his dozen appearances in The Twin Cities, by starting his 181st contest in a row, Favre has at least resuscitated his club for now. Instead of being four games behind the Vikings in the division, Green Bay trails but two games. If the season ended today, Green Bay would not qualify for the playoffs, but the campaign still has eight weeks to go. That is sufficient time for coach Mike Sherman to get his team on some sort of streak and to make a run for a postseason berth.
If you don't admire Favre, don't understand how lucky we all are to have witnessed the career of a man whose career has embodied the term "competitor," then you'd better check your pulse.
It might be increasingly a coach's league but, for most of the NFL's newest signal-callers, well, they've been out of their league. There are five coaches who are in their first year with their respective teams in 2003 and their aggregate record is 16-25.
Bill Parcells of Dallas, who has now led the Cowboys to more victories than they posted in any of the three previous campaigns, accounts for six of those 16 wins. Parcells might not be the most loveable guy around, but the man is more flexible than he is credited with being. That's obvious in the manner he has adjusted to a Dallas defense that is worlds removed from the kind of unit he prefers. And, even though we know that this is getting redundant, any coach who can win six of eight games with Quincy Carter as his quarterback has to be pretty special.
None of the other new coaches has even a break-even record. Sure, Marvin Lewis has provided some much-needed order, not to mention a sense of accountability, in Cincinnati. But how does one explain the Bengals' loss at Arizona on Sunday afternoon? Dennis Erickson is 4-5 in San Francisco but the 49ers will look schizoid. Jack Del Rio has suffered some painful moments -- none of them as hurtful as the self-inflicted wound to punter Chris Hanson because of the silly stump-and-ax motivational ploy by the coach -- in Jacksonville. And Steve Mariucci, well, he'd have a more representative roster in Detroit if he assembled an all-star team from all the Michigan college programs.
The second-year head coaches in the NFL aren't doing a lot better, with a combined 32-32 mark, and four of the group of eight are sporting losing records. Worse, three of the second-year head coaches -- Steve Spurrier of Washington, Marty Schottenheimer of San Diego and the Oakland Raiders' Bill Callahan -- could be headed to the unemployment line.
Spurrier's days numbered
Yep, we said Spurrier, a coach we predicted last year would eventually be successful in the NFL. OK, we're convinced now that "eventually" will never come for The Ol' Ball Coach. Give him a 10-year contract at $5 million annually and it wouldn't matter. If it's true Snyder dialed up Jimmy Johnson this week, to ask him how he made the transition from college to the NFL, that doesn't bode well for Spurrier. The guy is toast. Ditto the Fun-'N'-Gun offense. Once again we got suckered in and maybe, as my lovely wife has suggested, I'll now quit insisting that gimmicky, lopsided offenses can win at the NFL level. I'm the same idiot, she reminded me the other day, who felt June Jones could make the run-and-shoot a viable entity in the pro game. This time around, I'm screaming "Uncle!" long before I get that emotionally invested in an off-beat offense again.
Spurrier's days are numbered. Lucky for him, so is his remaining salary, to the tune of $15 million over the final three seasons of his contract. Even if he lets Skins owner Dan Snyder off the hook, reaching a settlement for maybe half of what is due him, that's a heck of a lot of green's fees. Here's hoping that, on his way out the door, whether it's in the next few weeks or at the end of the year, Spurrier makes some kind of donation to the Patrick Ramsey mental rehabilitation fund. The second-year quarterback is going to need some couch time with a top shrink, about the only way that he is going to recover from the shell-shocked experience through which he is currently suffering.
The Washington coaches had two weeks to prepare for Sunday's matchup at Dallas, two weeks to put in a pass protection scheme with more consistency than oatmeal, and they failed miserably. It's amazing that Ramsey, who has failed to finish three of the last four games, could even walk off the field following Sunday's defeat at Texas Stadium. If it's possible for a quarterback to suffer from being punch-drunk, Ramsey qualifies, and one has to wonder how much longer he can take it. The Cowboys blitzed like crazy Sunday, getting all four sacks from linebackers and safeties, and the Redskins appeared to still be confused by all the permutations.
If that was "max" protection, as Spurrier insisted, it had minimum effectiveness. Ramsey has a fractured finger on his left hand. At this rate, now having been sacked 26 times, the talented but tortured kid soon will be in a body cast.
Smart move Tony
Much of the rationale for choosing Freeney much higher than most teams had him rated in 2002, Dungy patiently explained, was because the Colts offense was so very good. Huh? Yeah, the Indianapolis coach figured that, with his offense, he would play a lot of games from out in front. And if the opposition was forced to consistently play from behind, often by double digits, it would have to abandon the run and throw the ball. That would precipitate plenty of pass-rush opportunities and, despite his lack of bulk, Freeney is a pure edge rusher.
Convoluted? Maybe. But also brilliant. Plus the former Syracuse star simply fits well with the Dungy defensive scheme, a blueprint that puts a premium on quickness, and stresses the ability to close on the ball.
Future still foggy
We don't buy it because, after all, you still better have a quarterback in this league. And while the venerable Chris Chandler has played well in winning two of three starts (the Bears are converting 45 percent of their third-down plays under his guidance, after converting roughly 25 percent of their chances with allegedly more mobile Kordell Stewart running the offense), there still is no read on how first-round quarterback Rex Grossman will develop.
Grossman, not Chandler, represents the future. So no matter how productive this Chicago kiddie korps has been in recent weeks, the big question mark is still hanging out there: Can Grossman play? It's good that fans of Da Bears are getting to cheer a little. But playing Chandler gets Chicago no closer to a gauging Grossman's goods. So as coach Dick Jauron continues to develop youngsters for the guy who will succeed him in 2004, what's still missing is Grossman's development, and management might consider strongly suggesting that the staff give the former Florida Gators star some PT. And soon.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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