It is hardly a passing of the torch. In fact, it isn't a passing at all, but rather sort of an absence of passing. For the past 11 seasons, the Green Bay offense belonged to quarterback Brett Favre, the unit's success pretty much dependent on his right arm. But in the last two weeks, with Favre still nursing a broken thumb that doesn't figure to be fully healed until some point this summer when he's sitting on a tractor in Hattiesburg, Miss., the old Green Bay offense has a new centerpiece.
Jay Fiedler, Dolphins QB
Plenty of worthy candidates (and we especially like Minnesota corner Brian Williams, who helped stop the Vikings' four-game skid, with three interceptions) but we're going with Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler. Just when the garishly orange-clad Dolphins were about to turn into Thanksgiving pumpkins (and they still could in Thursday's matchup with the Dallas Cowboys), the veteran quarterback shook off his knee injury and replaced the very ineffective Brian Griese. The Miami players clearly responded to Fiedler, who led the Dolphins to a pair of scores, and who used a lot of weapons Griese seemed incapable of firing. As for Williams, he had just three interceptions in the first 26 games of his career, before posting the Sunday hat trick.
Comments elicited from an AFC pro scout and an NFC personnel director:
"I told you this a couple weeks ago but really believe it now. (Lions quarterback) Joey Harrington is regressing and he can't seem to get his career out of reverse. I mean, the guy had a run on Sunday for 26 yards, and that was longer than his best pass completion, of 23 yards. As bad as Detroit is, I really expected more from him this year, and he has been a major disappointment."
"I'm hearing the early read on (Tennessee quarterback) Steve McNair isn't very promising for next week. The guy is a warrior, but he and the Titans might be better served trying to beat the Jets without him, and doing everything possible to get him ready for the Dec. 7 game against Indianapolis. As for (Billy) Volek, well, he showed a ton of (moxie) playing like he did on Sunday. Sure, it was just the Falcons, but the Titans were behind when he came in, and he made plays. He doesn't have great arm strength but I can see why they moved him up to No. 2 in preseason and cut (Neil) O'Donnell. He looked poised and he knew where the throw the ball."
"It's always nice to be wanted and even nicer to have options. But if (Vikings defensive coordinator) George O'Leary is serious about the Central Florida vacancy, someone ought to tell him not to be. I understand he knows the athletic director, but there's been a lot of crazy (stuff) going on there. The job doesn't pay much, they fired a good guy in Mike Kruczek, and now they're trying to find a way not to pay out the rest of his contract."
"From what I hear, things are getting a little tense between (Redskins quarterback) Patrick Ramsey and (coach Steve) Spurrier. There are a lot of teams that would like to have a young guy like Ramsey around, believe me."
"I'm not a big fan of (Jacksonville) coach Jack) Del Rio, right? But if you look at tape of the last two or three games, that team is playing a lot harder and some of their kids are making plays now. So maybe he does have something going on down there in terms of getting that bunch pointed in the right direction for next year."
"There are a few teams who feel that (NFL vice president) Gene Washington isn't being tough enough on fines this year. A couple of general managers think he's gone soft in some circumstances."
"He's already a two-time loser in the NFL but, if there are as many (vacancies) as it seems there are going to be, USC's Pete Carroll almost has to get a sniff, doesn't he?"
Heard in the pressbox
If Miami coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't survive at the end of the season, look for owner Wayne Huizenga to look hard at candidates in the college ranks. ... Cleveland offensive coordinator Bruce Arians could be in some trouble at the end of the year. Arians can't be blamed for all the injuries on the line, but someone has to take the fall for the way that the unit is playing. The Browns were miserable on Sunday, with just 12 yards on 14 plays in the "red zone." As for the rumors that Cleveland will hire a general manager, forget it, since coach Butch Davis is trying to consolidate power, not diffuse it. ... Dallas coach Bill Parcells has moved (left) guard Larry Allen out of the doghouse and (right) tackle Ryan Young has replaced him. ... The Cowboys wished they had been able to finish a trade for Bengals tailback Rudi Johnson early in the season. It was Johnson and not Corey Dillon, as was erroneously rumored, they really wanted.
Favre won't get the Packers even close to the title game this season without riding Ahman Green into Houston, and that has been made obvious the last two weeks. In that period, Favre has passed for 230 yards, and put the ball in the air only 43 times. Green, on the other hand, has carried 48 times for 263 yards.
The Packers ran for 243 yards in Sunday's victory over San Francisco and the emergence of Najeh Davenport, as the caddy for Green, has provided coach Mike Sherman a viable power game. Green is a terrific slasher and, when he's not putting the ball on the ground, is a true difference-maker. Davenport, whose career got out to a shaky start a year ago, is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and brings the Packers a new and intriguing dimension.
Perhaps if Favre were completely healthy, the hardly subtle evolution would never have occurred, and the Packers would still be looking to No. 4 for every play at crunch time. But the thumb injury did occur and, in terms of prolonging Favre's career, it could now be ironically fortuitous. Forced to seek other options, the Packers have discovered some, although they would still be in trouble if Favre ever went down. They have survived his four interceptions in the last two games but might not survive if Favre were standing on the sideline. Still, the Packers, for the remainder of a 2003 season in which the schedule is kind and the Vikings have been even kinder by coming back to the rest of the pack, have a new offensive identity. For now, at least, the new looks seem to fit pretty well.
You will never find Bill Parcells' heart pinned to his sleeve. So quit looking. But as we have pointed out in the past, and been duly dumped upon by the scribes who covered him as beat reporters and got more than ample doses of The Tuna, he occasionally lets down his guard and allows some brief insight into what makes him tick. And that was the case again Sunday evening, after his Dallas Cowboys defeated the tough Carolina Panthers, and again drew a deep breath as the skeptics kept listening for a death gurgle.
In essence, fighting off a case of laryngitis, Parcells acknowledged that the feeling he derived from Sunday's intense outing was the very reason he returned to the league again. OK, everyone kind of knew that already, right? I mean, for as smart a man as he is, Parcells is defined pretty one-dimensionally by his passion for the game. So the Sunday postgame session stopped short of being a soul-bearing. But it was one of those vintage Parcells moments. The kind that reminds all of his critics that he does, too, have a human side.
Also notable was the mini-lecture Parcells provided the media, by suggesting that the victory meant the outside world can no longer ascribe the term "losers" to the Cowboys. It wasn't so much an in-your-face salvo -- unlike his longtime buddy, Bob Knight, Parcells doesn't overtly stick the needle into the cushion -- as it was a reminder to those who felt the Cowboys would win about six games in the first season of the coach's stewardship. Uh, message clearly received, your Tuna-ness. Outsiders keep looking at the schedule and expecting the Cowboys to fold. Not surprising, given that Parcells doesn't possess a terribly strong hand, and holds very few trump cards. But he's done an incredible job, to this point, bluffing his modest team into believing it can take the pot.
Now that he's reminded the guys in his locker room of that possibility, Parcells decided Sunday to take the message to the folks outside of the Cowboys family, and it was a calculated move, to be sure. It was also the move of a man proud of what his charges have accomplished to this point.
McNabb and McAllister shine
It seems an understatement to point out that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is one of the league's hottest players over the last month or so. But watching the Eagles' victory over New Orleans on Sunday, it occurred to us that a guy who never gets any notice is Saints tailback Deuce McAllister, who has eight straight outings of 100 or more rushing yards.
The remarkable McAllister notched 232 total yards from scrimmage in the Saints' latest failure in a big statement-type game. (Actually, guys named "Deuce" or "Duce," as in Staley of the Eagles, combined for 335 all-purpose yards). A week ago, McAllister had 237 yards from scrimmage. His two-week total of 469 yards is believed to represent one of the best fortnights in the last 20 years.
For a guy who was hurt way too often at the University of Mississippi, then played second fiddle to Ricky Williams during his rookie campaign with the Saints, he has become a superb back. Few tailbacks in the league combine his speed, size and grace.
OK, now back to McNabb, who has rallied his once sputtering team to six straight wins. In the last five weeks he has a quarterback rating of 103.7, has completed 65.5 percent of his attempts, thrown for six touchdowns and tossed just one interception.
Kitna keeps passing tests
This week's chicken-and-egg conundrum: Are the Cincinnati Bengals winning because Jon Kitna is turning the ball over significantly less these days? Or are the Bengals improving so much that Kitna's ball security, frequently a problem in the past, has suddenly become just a by-product of his club's performance?
We're guessing that the former is true. In the team's six victories, the formerly mistake-prone Kitna has 15 touchdown passes and just a lone interception. In five defeats, the pickoffs outnumber the scores, 8-4. But there was Kitna again on Sunday, throwing four touchdown passes against woeful San Diego, and not surrendering the ball a single time on a turnover. Consider this: Had the Baltimore Ravens not staged the greatest comeback in their brief history, the Bengals would hold sole possession of first place in the raggedy AFC North through 12 weeks of the season.
It is the sign of a maturing team, and a maturing quarterback as well, that Cincinnati did not display a single sign of letdown coming off last week's emotional win over Kansas City. As most longsuffering Bengals fans know, few observers would have been shocked had the team gone to the West Coast and frittered away its hard-earned prosperity. But this is a different Bengals team under Marvin Lewis and Kitna is a different player as well.
We noted this in the "Tip Sheet" on Friday but it bears mentioning again. If Kitna plays this well the balance of the season, Lewis will have little choice but to go to camp next summer with him as the starter, which means Carson Palmer could open another year firmly tethered to the sideline.
Beat up Bulger
By virtue of a pair of disparate overtime outcomes, the St. Louis Rams suddenly lead the NFC West, and certainly rate as one of the NFL's hottest franchises. The Rams on Sunday defeated Arizona in overtime while, in one of the incredible finishes on a day that produced several of them, division rival Seattle blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Ravens. Just like that, don't ya know, the Rams are tied for the best record in the conference.
But coach Mike Martz, a guy whose offensive daring we unabashedly admire, is flirting with fire again. And sooner or later, given the up-and-down performances of late by young quarterback Marc Bulger, the Rams could be burned by an offensive design that has again become a bit too lopsided. Maybe it's time, Mike, to get the ball back to Marshall Faulk again. Yeah, he had 24 carries and 100 yards Sunday, but he needs to keep getting meaningful "touches" the rest of the season.
In its last four outings, St. Louis has averaged nearly 40 passes (actually 39.5), and opposition defenses aren't playing the Rams honest. That has impacted on Bulger who, in that inconsistent four-game stretch has thrown four touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, and has an efficiency rating of only 62.7. We know, the only stat that really counts at the quarterback positions is win and losses and Bulger is 14-3. It's also estimable that after the Sunday game, in which he tossed four interceptions and lost a fumble, Bulger vowed to keep on chuckin' the ball up the field. Not a bad idea when you've got wide receivers like Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, who combined for 244 yards against the Arizona defense.
But in the NFL, you simply can't keep providing the opposition additional chances, not on a weekly basis. Over the last seven games, Bulger has at least two interceptions in all but one of them. And if you've ever seen Bulger's reedy frame, well, he's not a guy you want getting hit 12-15 times per game. Sunday marked the second week in a row that Martz considered replacing Bulger with Kurt Warner but then, following the victory, the Rams coach emphasized the youngster is his starter. No matter what.
If that's the case, Martz needs to better balance the offense again, to do a better job of keeping Bulger out of harm's way as much as possible. In the topsy-turvy NFC, where any one of four or five teams can advance to the Super Bowl, the Rams have a shot. But not if Bulger has to keep taking body shots and continues to take poor care of the ball.
Homeboy alert: Bulger's high school alma mater, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, claimed its first WPIAL title (the Western part of the state) on Saturday evening, a 42-10 victory. Oh, yeah, it's my high school alma mater, too. Way to go, Vikings!
The Wright stuff
We've always liked Anthony Wright's whippet right arm more than most other people. But let's face it, we'd be lying if we tried to claim that Wright, basically an afterthought for the Ravens until two weeks ago, had a performance in him like Sunday's career day. Wright had five touchdown passes in his entire career, then threw four Sunday in the inexplicable comeback victory over Seattle, helping the Ravens overcome a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
See, we told you Brian Billick was a great developer of quarterbacks, didn't we? Yeah, right. But the performance of Wright, who a week ago tossed two interceptions in an ugly defeat, was but one of the crazy elements of the overtime game.
How about Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 333 yards and five touchdown passes and losing? (Bad day for the Hasselbeck clan as, hours later, kid brother Tim came up short for the Redskins.)
And maybe more preposterous, Ravens wide receiver Marcus Robinson, all but shuttled to the scrap heap, enjoyed a day reminiscent of his 1999 campaign with the Bears. That year, Robinson had 1,400 yards and nine scores in 16 games. He battled knee injuries in the ensuing four years and had just 10 touchdown catches in his most recent 41 games. And then the guy goes out and puts up seven catches, 131 yards, and four touchdowns. Here's hoping that Wright and Robinson, both good guys, don't wake up anytime soon from Sunday's dream.
Detroit has now lost 22 straight road games and can tie the league record, held by the Houston Oilers (1981-84) with a defeat at Kansas City on Dec. 14. The Lions also play at Carolina on Dec. 21.
Seattle is no great shakes on the road, either, with a 1-4 mark now in 2003.
Is there a more up-and-down runner in the league than Warrick Dunn of the Falcons? Coming off two strong outings, he had just 14 yards on 14 carries against the Titans. He had a long run of 11 yards, meaning he basically averaged 8.3 inches on his other attempts.
The Falcons have led five times at halftime this season, including Sunday, and are 0-5 in those contests.
No Steelers receiver had more than two catches on Sunday and Hines Ward managed just one grab for a measly 13 yards.
Jets wide receiver Santana Moss had only two catches for 13 yards, but one was a game-winning touchdown grab with 26 seconds remaining.