Morning After: Looking back

Would the Chargers still pass on Vick? What's wrong with the Bucs defense? Where'd Rudi Johnson come from?

Updated: November 11, 2003, 5:18 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Silly question: What do the two highest quarterbacks selected in the 2001 draft have in common? Provocative answer: Neither of them, Mike Vick of the Atlanta Falcons (first choice overall) and the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees (initial prospect selected in the second stanza), figures to get back on the field again in 2003. OK, so we're kidding about that, right? Kind of.

Game ball
Taylor
Taylor
Fred Taylor, Jaguars RB
All week long, Jacksonville Jaguars tailback Fred Taylor insisted that he was going to punish Indianapolis rookie Mike Doss, the safety he felt had been a bit overzealous in the first meeting of the season between the two clubs, back on Sept. 21. Well, Taylor was a man of his word, rushing for 152 yards and two touchdowns, on 28 attempts, as the Jags upset the Colts on Sunday at Alltel Stadium. To punctuate the day, Taylor scored the game-winning touchdown on a 32-yard run with 1:08 left on the contest, breaking three tackle attempts as he bolted to the end zone. Fittingly, the final Indianapolis defender to whiff on Taylor was, you guessed it, Mike Doss. The loss kept the Colts from becoming the first team in league history to win three road games in a season at all of the Florida-based franchises.
Scout's take
Comments elicited from one NFC personnel director and one AFC scout:

  • O'Leary
    O'Leary
    "Nothing against (Minnesota defensive coordinator) George O'Leary, but the Vikings defense wasn't as good as all you media guys made it out to be. And now that the team has lost (three games in a row), look for (head coach) Mike Tice to move closer to the panic button. Tice likes to think of himself as an 'action' guy. But he's more of an 'overreaction' guy, a lot of people feel."

  • "Let's see, there's death and taxes and the other certainty is that (Brian) Griese will cough up the ball every time he is hit from the blindside. Breathe hard on the guy and the ball is coming out. I watched him (Sunday) and he just cannot protect the football. Yeah, the line is bad, but he doesn't get rid of the thing and his feet are incredibly slow."

  • "Dave Wannstedt might want to take back that prediction that the Dolphins will lead the NFL in rushing over the second half of the year. (Ricky) Williams is too slow to the hole, although I don't know why, and that's been as notable problem as their (subpar) offensive line."

  • "Decent job, Pasquarelli, in picking your all-NFC team for the halfway point of the season. But I would have taken Flozell Adams (of Dallas) at left tackle and (Seattle's Steve) Hutchinson at left guard. And at the middle linebacker spot, Dat Nguyen has been tremendous. He's even made a convert of (Bill) Parcells, who didn't think he could live with a middle 'backer that small."

  • "This might not be a game for Einstein-type guys, I know, but those reports that (suspended Ohio State tailback) Maurice Clarett is screwing up in school won't help his cause. More so than the grades, it's the perceived lack of discipline reflected in the grades, like not being able to pass a Phys-Ed course, that teams will note."

  • "OK, now we see why (Baltimore coach Brian Billick) chose Kyle Boller over Chris Redman as his starting quarterback. Redman is awful, man, not even functional."

  • "Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker ought to be fined, especially after Sunday, for being one of the dirtiest blockers in the league. He keeps it up, people will be out to get the guy."
  • Heard in the pressbox
    Anderson
    Anderson
    Assuming that the Tampa Bay running backs got safely through Sunday's game at Carolina, and none of the backs reported injuries, the Bucs will not sign former Falcons power runner Jamal Anderson. The Bucs people said nice things about Anderson after his workout for club officials last week. But the truth is, they felt Anderson had too much rust, and there isn't much interest in him now. ... Former standout left offensive tackle Richmond Webb, who auditioned for the Bucs and the Dolphins last week, weighed in at about 350 pounds, roughly 25-30 pounds more than his playing weight. Let's just say, he shouldn't sit and wait by the phone, hoping suitors will call back. ... Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe took three sacks Sunday, fumbled twice, and looks incredibly skittish in the pocket for a guy of his tenure. ... Seattle coaches blew it Sunday by not blitzing Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey a lot more. Coordinator Ray Rhodes is not a high-percentage blitz guy, but he should have come at Ramsey, because the Skins line can't pick up the blitz. The Seahawks got zero sacks and, to tell the truth, a defense almost has to be trying hard not to get a sack for that to happen against Washington. ... One thing that Dick Vermeil has all over (Bill) Parcells is continuity on special teams. Parcells has never been big on that. Vermeil, on the other hand, will keep guys around for years, just to play on 'teams.' The Chiefs basically have devoted five or six roster spots to special teams players. ... Houston general manager Charley Casserly wants to start, in the next week or two, sorting the pretenders from the contenders in the Drew Henson sweepstakes. ... Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers, even at this point now in the season, still hasn't adapted to the double-team blocks he's seeing on a regular basis. ... The main reason Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton allowed himself to be indicted last week on cocaine charges, rather than take a cushy plea deal was because he plans to retire after this year. Had he taken a plea, he would have been subject to the league's personal conduct policy and suspended. Now he can delay the whole thing, wait until the offseason, and not have to worry about NFL sanctions. Plus, he feels he can beat the rap.

    But it's something to think about, the possibility that the two young passers, forever connected by the 2001 draft eve trade which sent the NFL's most electrifying performer to the South instead of to Southern California, can start planning their offseason vacations with seven weekends remaining on the schedule. Certainly the situations in which the quarterbacks currently find themselves should prompt some kind of reexamination of that megadeal. Many league observers felt San Diego got the better of the trade, since they took tailback LaDainian Tomlinson with the pick secured from the Falcons in the first-round flip-flop, the No. 5 selection overall in the draft. Then the Chargers were still able to grab their alleged quarterback of the future, the brainy Brees, at the top of Round 2. The Chargers also received elusive return specialist Tim Dwight from the Falcons.

    But let's look at the trade, from the San Diego standpoint, three seasons later. There is no denying the superb Tomlinson is a special back, arguably among the NFL's premier runners, a guy on pace for 1,675 yards in 2003, after slashing for 1,236 yards in his rookie campaign and for 1,683 yards in '02. But you win in the NFL with a great quarterback and it is a position where every club looks down the road and wants to know the centerpiece spot has been addressed. The demotion of Brees this week, the likelihood that coach Marty Schottenheimer could go the codger route with Doug Flutie over the season's second half in an effort to salvage his job, certainly creates doubts about whether the former Purdue star is the Chargers' starter for 2004 and beyond.

    A terrific student of the game, well-schooled in sophisticated passing designs, Brees has nonetheless regressed this season. His mechanics have been sloppy, many of his reads ill-advised, his confidence dented. Given the way the 41-year-old Flutie frolicked through the Minnesota defense on Sunday, you know he's going to start next week against the Denver Broncos, right? And if he plays well there, he isn't going to be yanked from the starting lineup, at least not anytime soon. Where that leaves Drew Brees -- and, just as important, where it leaves the Chargers for the long-term -- remains to be seen. Dwight, for his part, cashed a huge signing bonus two years ago when San Diego officials decided they could turn him into a big-time wide receiver, but hasn't provided much return on a dubious investment.

    So given what the Chargers know now, if they had Wesley Clark outfit them with that time travel machine he recently discussed, would they turn back the clock and undo the deal? Even with Vick injured, would he have been a savvier choice, looking at things through the prism of the big picture? Sure, it's purely hypothetical, but Brees' struggles make it interesting to posit.

    Oh, yeah, the early references to the fact that Vick might not play in 2003: Go read David Fleming's interview with Vick in the current ESPN the Magazine, and you come away thinking that the guy is not inclined to get back on the field in 2003 unless he is about 1,000 percent recovered from his broken ankle. Also notable is that Vick is somewhat critical of the Atlanta coaches for having him in the second preseason game at all. Apparently, he felt one game was enough to ready him for the regular season, despite the fact he had only 17 career starts. There is some compelling stuff in the interview, with Vick's language much stronger than any of his previous public comments, and the tone is that of a player who has checked out until training camp begins next summer.

    Defenseless
    The numbers are not that disparate. A year ago, through nine contests, the Tampa Bay defense ranked second in the league and had generated 22 takeaways. In '03, the Bucs ranked No. 4 defensively going into Sunday's game at Carolina, and the unit had forced 20 turnovers. The differences, it would seem, are negligible.

    But this is hardly the same Bucs defense of a season ago, when it suffocated opposition offenses, and then bludgeoned the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. There is something missing here and it goes beyond the free agent defections of strong-side linebacker Alshermond Singleton and free safety Dexter Jackson, the injuries to middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and cornerback Brian Kelly, the reshuffling precipitated by both those elements.

    Yeah, the once-vaunted Bucs defense is still better than most units in the league, and a lot of coaches would take even half the starters in a heartbeat. But this year's edition of the Tampa Bay defense, as evidenced in Sunday's gut-wrenching loss at Carolina, doesn't annihilate opponents the way the 2002 one did. It doesn't protect leads. It doesn't force turnovers late in the game. It doesn't deliver the knockout punch. Like the Chicago Cubs bullpen, it doesn't close games out, something Tampa Bay coaches used to be able to take for granted in the past. "We haven't been playing our game," allowed end Greg Spires. "(It) used to be teams struggled to get a first down against us. I don't know if the same sense of fear (by opponents) is there right now."

    Suggest, if you will, that the Bucs offense once again is shy of juggernaut status. Hey, no argument here, folks. But these are the Bucs, a team for whom offense used to be a diversion, an avocation that allowed Warren Sapp and mates to take a breather once in a while and gnaw on opposition body parts. Blood in the water? That used to be the signal to look out for the Bucs' ravenous defense. But not anymore. A unit that thrived on chum has become chumps instead. All right, that's outrageous hyperbole, we acknowledge. But afforded the opportunity to get back into the division race on Sunday, needing only to shut down a one-dimensional Carolina Panthers offense to complete a comeback win on the road, the defense melted.

    It allowed the Panthers, and quarterback Jake Delhomme no less, to march 78 yards to a winning touchdown. Delhomme, who spent much of the day just throwing the ball sideways and hoping that Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad might break some tackles, went boom, boom, boom, right down the field. Of his six longest completions of the afternoon, three came on the final drive, as the Tampa Bay secondary looked discombobulated. (Note: Did you know there is no such word as combobulated? Go ahead, look it up.)

    The defense that vowed at the outset of training camp, in the heat of July, to be dominating again, didn't quite live up to that promise. And it isn't the first time this season the defense has failed the defending Super Bowl champions. Like, uh, how about the "China Syndrome"-level meltdown versus Indianapolis in the ignominious overtime defeat of Oct. 6? Or the loss to the New Orleans Saints last weekend?

    Here's all you need to know: At one point Sunday, during his post-game interview, Bucs coach Jon Gruden allowed his team has been "mugged" at times in 2003. It wasn't all that long ago, was it, that the Bucs were the muggers and not the helpless mug-ees?

    Problems in Buffalo
    While on the general topic of defenses: The Buffalo Bills statistically ranked third in the NFL in total defense entering Sunday's game at Texas Stadium, bottled up the Dallas Cowboys for the most part, limiting their opponents to 10 points. And the Bills, the chic pick by many pundits (including yours truly) to capture the AFC East, lost once again, fell to 4-5, and nudged coach Gregg Williams a step closer to the unemployment line.

    The Bills invested plenty of time and money in upgrading the defense in the offseason but seemed to ignore the other side of the ball. The feeling was that, despite trading wide receiver Peerless Price to Atlanta, the Bills would win by running the ball more, putting less strain on Drew Bledsoe to make plays, become a tougher unit. It hasn't worked out, though, anything close to that blueprint. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has not bought into the philosophy. The offensive line has taken a step back. Tailback Travis Henry has been injured and second-year wide receiver Josh Reed, the man who was supposed to pick up some of the slack of Price's departure, has been inconsistent.

    The Bills ranked just 27th offensively before Sunday, and have now lost contests in which they surrendered only 17, 23 and 10 points. Buffalo has now lost four consecutive road games, been outscored 95-21 in that streak, and hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in the last three of those contests. Word is that the line is too easily confused by the blitz and that Bledsoe's once-lethal release has slowed considerably, allowing defenders to make a better break on the ball. As the Gilda Radner-created character Roseanne Roseannadanna used to implore: "It's always something." For the Bills, it was their porous defense in 2002, and this season it's an offense that has lost potency. There has been no happy medium and, come January, there won't be many happy members of the current coaching staff, either. One name to watch as a potential successor to Williams: Current Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

    Rudi, Rudi, Rudi

    Johnson
    Johnson
    Under former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, tailback Rudi Johnson used to rot away on the bench. But this season, with starter Corey Dillon limited the last several weeks by a nagging groin injury, Johnson has gotten a chance to shine and proved to the skeptics that all he lacked was playing time.

    With the Paul Brown Stadium crowd (using that term, of course, very loosely) chanting his name Sunday afternoon, Johnson lugged the ball 43 times for 182 yards and three touchdowns. You can almost hear rookie head coach Marvin Lewis telling Dillon this week, "Whatever you do, Corey, don't come back until that injury is completely healed. Please! For your own good, take care of that nasty groin injury, CD."

    Lewis is all about playing guys who give solid effort. About the only thing Dillon has given Lewis is a migraine. But not to fear. Now that the Bengals have discovered the second half of the Johnson & Johnson combination (wideout Chad Johnson is the founding member of the firm), Dillon is as good as gone. Because of his age, and the perception of declining skills, Cincinnati won't get much more than a mid-round draft choice for Dillon on the trade market next spring. Hey, jump on any offer, Bengals. It's addition by subtraction. And Rudi Johnson, a human battering ram who is now playing the way he did at Auburn, is ready to step into Dillon's spot full-time.

    Moss shines

    Moss
    Moss
    Way back on the first day of training camp, New York Jets coach Herm Edwards said -- and, with a straight face, we promise -- that the team had chosen former University of Miami wide receiver Santana Moss in the first round of the 2001 draft because it sorely needed a punt return specialist. Now, Edwards is a great guy, about as candid a coach as there is in the league. But when that suggestion came out of his mouth that day, the media assemblage at Hofstra University backed up its chairs en masse, for fear Edwards' nose would grow so big, it would knock everybody to the floor. Edwards was just rationalizing what appeared that sunny day to be a questionable choice.

    Memo to Herm: No more need to explain away the Moss selection. And don't risk the little guy anymore, either, on the special teams units. In the Jets' overtime victory at Oakland on Sunday, the mighty mite wideout snatched six passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. It marked the fifth straight game in which Moss had a touchdown catch. He has four straight games of 96 yards or more and has gone over 100 yards in three of his last four appearances. In the last four games, Moss has seven touchdown grabs, and he has 44 catches for 726 yards and eight scores through nine games.

    Not bad considering that, in his first two seasons combined, Moss had but 32 catches for 473 yards and four touchdowns. "Good health and, so, more big play opportunities," said Moss of his hot streak.

    Reeves reaches milestone

    Reeves
    Reeves
    Congratulations to Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves on the 200th victory of a long and distinguished career. It was somewhat fitting that Reeves accomplished the feat in a city where he once coached. Those who care about Reeves a lot, and those of us who respect him more than he knows, were beginning to become legitimately concerned the Falcons wouldn't secure him the landmark win.

    The team's seven-game losing streak took a lot out of Reeves. How much? Last week, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schulz asked Reeves, after a loss to Philadelphia, how the coach was doing. Responded Reeves: "I'm dying." For a nanosecond, it flashed through Schultz's mind that Reeves, who underwent cardiac bypass surgery five years ago, might have been answering literally. Schultz thought he might have to reach for the phone in Reeves' office at the Georgia Dome and dial 9-1-1. Reeves sure didn't need the victory to all but assure himself a future berth in the Hall of Fame, but 200 is a nice, round number, and finally reaching the milestone certainly won't hurt his Canton cause.

    As for his Giants counterpart on Sunday, well, just when it looked like Jim Fassel had his annual job security telethon in full swing, his team laid a big egg. The loss, to a club that had dropped seven straight contests, was a hurtful one for Fassel and his staff, that's for sure.

    Punts

  • Miami quarterback Brian Griese had four turnovers on Sunday, two fumbles lost and two interceptions, and the Dolphins might be forced to hurry Jay Fiedler back into the lineup to try to salvage the season.

  • Tough day for the Barber Twins on Sunday. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber missed numerous tackles in the Bucs' defeat at Carolina and was beaten by slew-footed Ricky Proehl on a 66-yard touchdown pass when he misplayed the ball. Giants tailback Tiki Barber rushed for 120 yards but lost a couple of fumbles, including one in the "red zone."

  • The Tennessee Titans have now scored 30 or more points in six straight games, a franchise record. … Houston rookie tailback Domanick Davis rushed for 104 yards Sunday, his third 100-yard outing in four weeks.

  • Pittsburgh's 83-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter was its longest since the first game of the season.

  • After getting just two sacks in the first eight games, Steelers strong-side linebacker Jason Gildon had three sacks Sunday, and he passed L.C. Greenwood for the franchise record, with 76.

  • After totaling just 10 catches over the past two games, Redskins starting wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner combined for 13 catches, 206 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.

  • The Detroit Lions had just 17 yards on 20 rushes Sunday. They had five players carry the ball and the leading ground gainer was wide receiver Reggie Swinton with nine yards on an end-around. Two of the five players who registered carries had minus-yardage.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.