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Some players were really snubbed

12/19/2003

On no other day of the year is the term snub so often used, or actually misused, than the day the NFL announces the selections for its Pro Bowl squads.

Go ahead, check your local newspaper, even your favorite Web site. We're betting, at least in those cities that have NFL franchises, there is at least one headline that includes "snub" or a synonym as the principal verb. On sports-talk radio, even some popular talking-head TV shows, any player with decent numbers who was not awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to Honolulu is thought to have been snubbed.

Fact is, even with the recent improvements in the voting process, the Pro Bowl balloting remains a popularity contest, hardly an accurate barometer of which players are having truly standout seasons. Players cozy up to one another and stump for support. Teams will vote en masse, sometimes for undeserving players, to protect the interest of guys in their own locker room. In some cities, let's face it, fans essentially stuff the ballot boxes.

This year was no different, not only in terms of some dubious delegates heading off to Hawaii, but in the reaction the balloting generated. And it was no different, as well, in that many observers who opine about players being snubbed are, essentially, no more enlightened than the people who do the voting. You see, there is snubbed and there is snow-jobbed, folks. And if you can't parse the difference between the two, well, you shouldn't be up on a soap box complaining about the Pro Bowl choices.

Maybe you've heard that New England quarterback Tom Brady or San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson were snubbed. And maybe, under close inspection, they were. But they didn't suffer the kind of snow-job visited upon, say, Seattle right offensive guard Steve Hutchinson, Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Dat Nguyen or Minnesota tight end Jim Kleinsasser, just to name a few guys inexplicably left off the squads.

Sure, you can make a case for Brady, but which of the three quarterbacks on the AFC team do you bump to make room for the Patriots star. C'mon, make a choice, should it be Peyton Manning, Steve McNair or Trent Green who gets left behind on the mainland? The incredible Tomlimson has posted a wondrous year, demonstrated what an all-around back he is, and leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. But do you knock Jamal Lewis, Clinton Portis or Priest Holmes off the AFC roster to create a spot for the Chargers standout?

This has been a big year for Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker, one of the premier two-way edge defenders in the NFC, and a guy with a dozen sacks. But it would be difficult to argue that Rucker is more deserving than Michael Strahan, Simeon Rice or Leonard Little.

"The fact is, there are always going to be excellent players left off the Pro Bowl teams, because guys having standout years are always going to outnumber the quotas at some of the positions," said one AFC general manager. "But what would you have us do? I mean, should we be like baseball, and mandate that every team have a (Pro Bowl) player? Or should be increase the size of the teams? I don't think either of those is the right thing to do. And, besides, the debate over the Pro Bowl is part of the tapestry of the game now. Look, there are always guys who are going to get (screwed), and that's the way it is."

Here are a few of the dubious choices and surprising non-choices for this season's Pro Bowl. They are based on conversations with general managers, personnel directors and pro scouting directors. They are, hopefully, more than just the knee-jerk reactions we've witnessed to this point, and explore more than just the skill positions:

  • The selection of Dallas left guard Larry Allen to his eighth game is a prime example of a "reputation choice," and one based in part on the veteran's improved play over the last half of the season. Allen was terrible early, slowed by injuries and poor conditioning, and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells seethed over both. There were at least three left guards in the NFC -- the Seahawks' Hutchinson, Mike Wahle of Green Bay and Carolina's Jeno James -- better than Allen over the course of the entire season.

  • A human tackling machine, Nguyen ought to break out a shovel, he was so victimized by a snow-job. The two middle linebackers on the NFC team, Brian Urlacher of Chicago and Atlanta's Keith Brooking, benefited from accumulated celebrity. Both were good in '03, but didn't play nearly up to the levels of excellence established in past seasons. Brooking gets a pass, since he was on such a shoddy unit, and played the second half of the season with a broken back. In addition to Nguyen, the Giants' Michael Barrow and Mark Simoneau of Philadelphia probably should have gotten more consideration.

  • How left guard Ruben Brown of the Buffalo Bills continues to be voted in is a mystery. The nine-year veteran has been living off his rep for too many seasons. At least two left guards, Edwin Mulitalo of Baltimore and Kansas City's Brian Waters, had better years. For that matter, so did Cincinnati rookie Eric Steinbach, a second-round pick who helped solidify the Bengals' blocking unit.

  • St. Louis free safety Aeneas Williams had a comeback season, is one of the most widely respected players in the league, and has made a lot of big plays the last few weeks. But San Francisco's Tony Parrish lined up at both safety spots because of injuries, has taken on more responsibilities in pass coverage, and for the second season in a row has posted seven interceptions. Certainly interceptions are not the lone criterion for the secondary, but Parrish has other things going for him, including being the second-leading tackler on the 49ers defense.

  • Don't ever let it be said that playing in New York and having a touch of controversy don't help a player's career. Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey hasn't even played five weeks now and might not get on the field again this season. Yet he was chosen ahead of Kleinsasser and Itula Mili, both having excellent seasons.

  • A few others: It's hard to bet against Ravens strong safety Ed Reed, an emerging star, but New England's Rodney Harrison could finish among the top five vote-getters in the defensive player of the year balloting and isn't on the Pro Bowl team. ... Jets center Kevin Mawae hasn't been as good this season as in the past and Jacksonville snapper Brad Meester was very good, making the transition from guard. ... As good as Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas is, he slipped some this season, and Al Wilson of the Broncos would have been a more appropriate selection. ... Punters Shane Lechler of Oakland and Houston's Chad Stanley were both regarded by most pro scouts as better than Craig Hentrich of Tennessee.

    Around the league

  • This has been a difficult season for the officiating crew of Tom White, the referee whose group created a well-publicized administrative error in the Nov. 23 Seattle-Baltimore tilt when they failed to re-start the clock properly. That oversight helped provide the Ravens more time, of course, to enact one of the best comebacks in recent years. But things grew even tougher for the crew last week, when side judge Joe Larrew lost his son: 19-year-old Jake Larrew was killed in a one-car accident after attending, with some friends, the Monday night game of Dec. 8 that his father had worked. The entire crew, in a show of support and fellowship with Joe Larrew and his family, attended the funeral of Jake Larrew on Friday, Dec. 12. They then flew to Nashville to work last Sunday's Tennessee-Buffalo game. It's easy to criticize game officials, but one thing people can never question is the devotion to the game, and to each other, the officiating crews possess. The diligence of Joe Larrew after the death of his son is a tragic and poignant reminder of that. The next time you scream at an official, you might balance the books a little by following it up with a prayer for Larrew and his family.

  • While any discussion of the Pro Bowl balloting is always going to include the requisite bashing, some of the choices this year were very astute as well, personnel directors felt. Among the players who have deserved Pro Bowl honors the past few seasons, and finally were rewarded, were fullbacks Fred Beasley (San Francisco 49ers) and Tony Richardson (Kansas City), linebackers Keith Bulluck (Tennessee) and Takeo Spikes (Buffalo), safety Jerome Woods (Chiefs), tight end Alge Crumpler (Atlanta) and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (Carolina). Good job, too, in recognizing breakout seasons by players such as offensive tackle Flozell Adams (Dallas), linebacker Julian Peterson (San Francisco), cornerback Dre Bly (Detroit) and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (Jacksonville).

  • One final Pro Bowl observation: Interesting that the Ravens had eight players chosen, tying the Chiefs for the most players headed to Hawaii. Interesting because it allows the Brian Billick skeptics (like us) to cite the terrific support the Baltimore staff in general gets from its personnel department. All eight of the Baltimore players chosen for the Pro Bowl are "home grown," each of them chosen originally by the Ravens, none of them acquired as free agents. In fact, with the exception of special teams player Adalius Thomas, the Ravens all-stars are all first-round draft choices. Kudos to both general manager Ozzie Newsome and personnel director Phil Savage for such a superb track record. The only Ravens first-rounders from 1996-2002 who are not in this year's Pro Bowl are cornerback Duane Starks (1998) and wide receiver Travis Taylor (2000). The former departed the team last year, signing with Arizona as a restricted free agent, and the latter simply hasn't played up to his first-round status and, chances are, he never will.

  • Might a bit less of Marvin Harrison mean a longer playoff stay for the Indianapolis Colts this season? Could be. With former first-round wide receiver Reggie Wayne emerging as a viable threat, and Brandon Stokley finally over his usual physical maladies, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning could enter the '03 playoffs with more options than he had in previous postseason appearances. One shortcoming for the Indianapolis offense in the past was that it never successfully developed a legitimate complementary wideout, at least not since Harrison and Manning first partnered up in 1998. Between 1998-2002, the team's series of No. 2 wide receivers never had more than 50 catches or 716 yards. The second starter at wide receiver in those seasons averaged three touchdown catches. But with two games remaining, Wayne has 65 receptions, 806 yards and seven TDs. The former University of Miami star already has more touchdown receptions than in his first two seasons combined, and could still top his cumulative numbers for catches and receiving yards. Over the past five seasons, Harrison averaged 50.7 percent of the catches by Indianapolis wide receivers, 52.6 percent of the yards and a whopping 66.2 percent of the scores. This year, those averages, respectively, are 42.2, 43.7 and 45.5 percent. "We've always talked about spreading the ball around but, this year, it's more a reality," Manning said after last week's victory over Atlanta, a game in which the club's top three wide receivers had seven catches apiece. It took Wayne three years, but he has finally reached a solid comfort zone, and his work ethic is much improved. If Stokley can stay healthy, he could be a big upgrade at the No. 3 spot, with his ability to move the chains and his occasionally sneaky deep speed off double-moves. Harrison has averaged 105 catches the last five seasons, 117 the past four years, but is on pace for only 98 catches in 2003. With the other wideouts playing so well, though, that could actually be a plus.

  • It could be a while before the Atlanta Falcons hold their news conference to announce the club's new head coach, but kudos to owner Arthur Blank for finally landing the general manager he wanted and for continuing to strengthen the franchise. Under the long stewardship of Falcons founder Rankin Smith and his heirs, the franchise was one that seemed satisfied to coast along, with little sway in the NFL office and scarce representation on committees. But the addition of president and general manager Rich McKay, who understands the inner workings of the league office, adds clout and presence for the club. McKay, of course, is co-chairman of the powerful competition committee and arguably among the dozen most influential personages in the league. Blank and vice president Ray Anderson are on the workplace diversity committee. Vice president Dick Sullivan is on the marketing committee. That is in stark contrast to years past, when the Falcons were not represented on any of the key sitting groups at the league level. In less than two years under Blank, the Falcons have suddenly become a voice to be heeded in the league's Park Avenue offices, and are now "players" at lofty levels of NFL management. Now they need to add some players on the field, and to make a savvy choice for coach, to become a competitive force. It's great to help shape policy at the league level but far more rewarding, Blank and McKay would likely acknowledge, to fashion a Super Bowl champion.

  • One certain question that any candidate for the pending New York Giants head coach vacancy is apt to have is about the configuration of the front office in coming seasons. Current general manager Ernie Accorsi has suggested a few times this year that he has begun thinking about retirement. Unless a coach has been living in a cave, he probably knows Accorsi won't be around forever. But at a press conference earlier this week, Accorsi said he would stay until he hoisted a Super Bowl championship trophy, probably a bit of hyperbole. From what sources tell us, though, Accorsi will stick around at least through the 2005 campaign. Most observers felt that the fiercely loyal Accorsi would certainly stay through '04, to help assimilate a new head coach. It looks like his tenure will be one year longer than that, good news for the Giants, even with executive vice president John Mara becoming more of a presence. It is Accorsi and Mara who will do most of the preliminary legwork on the coaching search before presenting candidates to co-owners Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch. As for deposed coach Jim Fassel, the dot-connectors keep linking him to Arizona, where he was once the offensive coordinator and remains a favorite of ownership. But Fassel said this week that, while he wants to coach again in 2004, he wants to be with a franchise that has a chance to win. And Arizona has never been mistaken for such a franchise.

  • Raiders coach Bill Callahan is a good guy but things are a mess in Oakland, and it sure seems the team will have a new sideline boss in 2004. Maybe it's time owner Al Davis get away from his penchant for hiring guys with little or no head coaching experience, people who will do things his way, and bring in an experienced hand. Someone like a Dennis Green, whose track record is superb, and who could get more out of some of the young (but, unfortunately, hidden) talent on the Oakland roster. Whoever replaces the soon-to-be-canned Callahan had better come in with a stern hand. Last week, one of the team's most visible offensive performers asked for an excused absence to visit a family member who was ailing. Callahan granted the player the time off. But what he didn't realize was that the player would disappear for the entire week of preparation. It's just the latest sign of the inmates running, or at least trying to run, the asylum. Interesting item, too, on the Charles Woodson front. Only a month ago, the star cornerback was denying our suggestions that the intent of publicly airing his grievances with Callahan was to warn the team that it would cost a lot of money to bring him back in 2004. Then this week, he allowed that, if the Raiders don't ante up big-time, he could be gone as an unrestricted free agent. Woodson also hinted the Raiders would be much better served not to use the "franchise" tag, assuming there is no contract extension, to try to retain him.

  • This week's wild rumor on the University of Nebraska opening has Redskins coach Steve Spurrier resigning at the end of the season to take over the Cornhuskers. Last time we checked, there weren't enough championship golf courses in the Lincoln area for the rumor to have legs. But it has been a crazy week for Spurrier, one in which he created plenty of confusion, most of it by waffling over the fate of some folks on his current staff. As noted here last week, Spurrier's contract cedes him the right to hire and fire staffers. There is little doubt, though, owner Dan Snyder will very strongly suggest some staffing alterations. As for suggestions that the makeup of the 'Skins personnel department will change or that Snyder will refashion how players are acquired, forget it. Snyder is all but certain to reach agreement, at some point early in the offseason, on a contract extension for vice president Vinny Cerrato.

  • Assuming he recovers thoroughly from the lacerated spleen he suffered last weekend, look for Tennessee Titans backup quarterback Billy Volek to be a pretty popular player in the unrestricted free agent pool next spring. There are a lot of teams desperate to upgrade at the backup QB position and Volek will be a less expensive alternative to some of the older, more veteran quarterbacks who figure to be on the market. Even before his performance filling in for the injured Steve McNair last week, Volek was beginning to draw some interest. The former Fresno State standout has a strong arm, was good enough in college to start ahead of David Carr for two seasons, and has played well for the Titans when presented with opportunities. Teams will scrutinize his medical resume much closer now, but doctors do not believe Volek will need surgery, and feel his prognosis for recovery in the next couple months is excellent.

  • It's surprising enough that Detroit Lions ownership hasn't considered dismissing team president Matt Millen simply for the lack of progress the franchise has experienced on his watch, with nine victories in three seasons. It is beyond stunning, though, that Millen continues to enjoy tacit support from the Ford Family given the firestorms he keeps creating with his off-field misadventures. Since the league didn't discipline Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp, despite his characterization of Paul Tagliabue as a "slave master," don't expect Millen to be fined. Something about first amendment rights, you know, entering the picture. Millen is the CEO of a major corporation, though, and he should know better. A perch in the lofty heights of administration come with a price. Part of that price, we would think, is some degree of decorum. Millen, who had zero management experience when the Ford Family plucked him from the broadcast booth to try to yank their team out of the morass in which it exists, doesn't seem to understand that. He wants to be one of the boys, pumping iron in the weight room, exchanging jibes. But the landscape changes dramatically when you go from the front line to the front office. Millen still acts as if he is playing middle linebacker, exchanging verbal blows from across the line of scrimmage, trading every punch with a counterpunch. The Lions and the league have reminded him again this week, in the wake of the incident with Kansas City receiver Johnnie Morton, that he needs to exercise more tact and better control. Lions management is banking on the latest maelstrom subsiding and, truth be told, it has already begun to recede. But even a cat has only nine lives, and Millen is fast running out of chances.

  • Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has at various times the last three years considered moving St. Louis Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta to the weakside linebacker spot, the position he played at Arizona State and at which he earned Pac 10 defensive player of the year honors as a senior. The switch hasn't ever taken place but Smith, who will rate as a strong contender for some of the current and upcoming head coach vacancies, has found a way to expand Archuleta's hybrid skills. Over the course of this season, Archuleta has been increasingly used in Smith's blitz package, and he has responded with five sacks. If that number sounds rather pedestrian, consider that just nine defensive backs, six of them safeties, have posted five sacks or more. Archuleta has a shot to best the unofficial record for a defensive back, 6 ½ sacks, set by Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler in 1996. The oddity is that Archuleta, who typically plays close to the line of scrimmage in most of the St. Louis defensive sets, has just one interception in his three-year career.

  • Punts: Kudos to Buffalo second-year safety Coy Wire. The former Stanford star lost his starting job when the Bills acquired Lawyer Milloy just days before the start of the regular season. But Wire has become a standout player on the kicking teams and last week had six special teams tackles. ... Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch has essentially agreed to rework his contract in the offseason, which probably assures his return to the Browns for 2004, likely as the starter. ... The name of former Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin keeps coming up in conjunction with the Giants opening. But no one should be overly surprised if Coughlin gets some consideration in Miami as well, assuming that Dave Wannstedt does not return. Another guy to watch in the potential Miami coaching search is Texas head coach Mack Brown. ... Funny thing but, on Friday, when a wire story suggested that Nick Saban has no interest in any of the openings to which he has been linked, the LSU coach phoned a former colleague to see if he would be interested in being on his staff, should he accept an NFL position. ... Cincinnati's 8-6 mark heading into Sunday's game at St. Louis is the Bengals' best record at this point of the season since the 1988 campaign. ... The Philadelphia Eagles have turned the ball over just eight times during their nine-game winning streak.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.