Offseason demand for RBs will be high
While some teams are winning without great ground games, the offseason market for RBs figures to be busy.
In a bit of a surprise, only four of the top 10 teams in the league in rushing offense are currently either in or tied for first place in their divisions, a dramatic reduction from the past few seasons. And just three of the NFL's top 10 individual rushers play for clubs currently holding first-place perches.
"The one position you always want to have (secured) is quarterback," acknowledged one NFC general manager. "But I'd say running back is right up there, too, and there seems to be a lot of uncertainty at the position as you look ahead to 2004. There are a ton of teams unsettled at tailback. I would guess, being kind of conservative, that about one-third of the teams don't know who they will start next year. That position definitely is going to be a very big priority around the league."
No team figures to be more aggressive in rectifying its tailback situation than the Dallas Cowboys, where coach Bill Parcells almost certainly won't go into a second season with Troy Hambrick as the starter, and will do just about whatever it takes to land a quality runner.
The Cowboys targeted Domanick Davis of LSU in the fourth round of this year's draft, but the Houston Texans snatched him two spots ahead of Dallas' spot, and he is the league's leading rookie rusher. The Cowboys tried early in the season to deal for Rudi Johnson of Cincinnati, before Corey Dillon was injured and he was still sitting on the bench, but the Bengals rejected their overtures. But bet the mortgage that Parcells and owner Jerry Jones won't fail, during the offseason, to land a viable tailback who can pound the ball at defenses and permit the Cowboys coach to further impose his style on a team that already is a year ahead of schedule.
Lay a wager, too, that the Cowboys won't be the lone team in pursuit of tailback help.
The Detroit Lions have go get some running game help for Joey Harrington, or their young quarterback could continue to regress, as he has in some areas this year. Oakland needs some new blood at the position and, with Tom Brady emerging now as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, imagine how much better the New England offense could be if the Patriots land a top-shelf runner.
The Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Bucs must galvanize the tailback position. Tennessee could be in that group as well, depending on the future of Eddie George, whose contract now greatly outdistances his production.
Of course, the problem for any team seeking to upgrade at tailback is that there are not many standout veterans who will be in the free agent pool, and the strength of the position in the draft probably won't be discernable until the underclass prospects commit. This is not, as it currently stacks up, a particularly strong senior assemblage of tailbacks. As for the veterans, Duce Staley of Philadelphia could be the best of a dubious crop, and some team might have to overpay to land the former Eagles starter.
Whether it is the barely-ambulatory Steve McNair or the inexperienced Billy Volek starting at quarterback for the Tennessee Titans on Monday night, right offensive tackle Fred Miller is going to be under the spotlight, certainly in terms of pass protection. The eight-year veteran, who could be in his final season with the Titans because of salary cap ramifications in 2004, will be working much of the evening against Shaun Ellis, and the emerging Jets star is one of the most improved players in the NFL over the past couple seasons. Ellis has 11 ½ sacks in 2003 and has recorded at least a half-sack in all but one of the first 11 games. He possesses a complete repertoire of pass rush moves, and he figures to be a handful for Miller, whose technique sometimes gets sloppy.
In one of Sunday's marquee matchups, New England travels to Indianapolis, and the Colts had better hope the contest doesn't go into extra innings. With last week's 23-20 victory at Houston, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady extended his streak over overtime wins to seven. In fact, Brady has never lost in overtime. Here is a look at the best records by quarterbacks in overtime contests:
Player Record Pct.
Tom Brady 7-0 1.000
Terry Bradshaw 4-0 1.000
Ken Stabler 6-1 .857
Jake Plummer  4-1 .800
Jim Kelly 6-2 .750
Stat of the Week
Throughout his 11-year career, Richie Anderson has been one of the most dependable pass-catching fullbacks in the league, but has never gotten many opportunities to carry the ball. Still, it was somewhat amazing that, when Anderson scored on a four-yard run for the Dallas Cowboys in the second-quarter of their Thanksgiving loss to Miami, it marked his first rushing touchdown in an incredibly long stretch. Anderson, in fact, went 106 games between rushing scores. His last touchdown on the ground came when he played for the Jets, on a one-yard run against Arizona on Oct. 27, 1996.
Stat of the Weak
The New Orleans Saints are one of the most penalized teams in the NFL and one reason is a basic lack of discipline. New Orleans has been flagged for 42 "pre-snap" penalties, an inexplicably high number, and one that usually reflects poor concentration.
The Last Word
Around the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.