Morning After: Looking back
Would the Chargers still pass on Vick? What's wrong with the Bucs defense? Where'd Rudi Johnson come from?
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.
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.
Comments elicited from one NFC personnel director and one AFC scout:
|Heard in the pressbox|
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Steve Smith reaches 3-year deal with Ravens
- Source: Nicks lands in Indy on 1-year deal
- Pats reach deal with suspended CB Browner
- Source: Raiders to target Schaub, Sanchez
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
- Fathead Atlanta Falcons Logo Wall Graphic