In the wake of the release of Eddie George this week, someone reminded heir apparent Chris Brown of the old adage "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," and the young Tennessee Titans tailback quickly made it clear that, while he will miss his mentor, he welcomes the opportunity to step into the starting lineup and into the spotlight.
"Everybody gets their (opportunity) at some point," said Brown, the team's third-round draft choice a year ago. "My time is maybe coming a little bit sooner than some people thought that it would. The timetable has become a little more speeded up, no doubt about it. But that doesn't mean I'm not ready."
The Tennessee coaches certainly hope that's the case. While the Titans signed Antowain Smith on Thursday as a pretty nice veteran insurance, and already had the versatile Robert Holcombe on the roster, it is Brown who figures to get most of the workload. General manager Floyd Reese noted it "is going to take three men" to replace George. Left unsaid is that Brown, who struggled with a hamstring injury early in 2003 that severely curtailed some of the Titans staff's plans for him, has to emerge as a big-time player.
By the time the Titans report to camp, George will be a memory and Brown will have to be The Man.
Recent history notwithstanding, few franchises advance to the Super Bowl employing a tailback-by-committee approach. The last three NFL champions -- New England twice and, to a lesser extent, Tampa Bay -- were among the exceptions. But the track record is that it takes a feature back getting 300-plus carries and over 1,000 yards to contend for a berth in the title game.
With time running out on the current Tennessee roster, and future cap problems almost certain to result in some degree of makeover in 2005, Brown has to be productive. Losing George, who clearly allowed ego to cloud his judgement, means that Tennessee also lost the additional season of apprenticeship the team would have liked Brown to enjoy. That said, a few Titans veterans and assistants suggested to ESPN.com that accelerating the learning curve for Brown might not be such a bad thing.
Noted one offensive veteran: "There are still question marks about him and, hey, if you're a veteran on this team, you wanted Eddie here. But I think (Brown) has the right makeup to respond well to this chance. When you take a roadblock out of the way, it allows you to go faster, right? Chris knew this was coming at some point. This may be a little sooner than we thought, him included, but you make your bones in this league by stepping up when they call your number. I'm betting he'll be OK."
Brown logged just 56 carries in '03, for 221 yards, and zero touchdowns. Like George, he averaged less than four yards per attempt, and that's not the only pertinent comparison. The former Colorado standout has a similar build and running style, long and upright, a body that invites a lot of hits and just as many bruises. Brown should give Tennessee, at least a step more quickness to the hole, and improved long speed at the position.
It became privately chic, as George's numbers declined, to scrutinize the quality of the offensive line behind which he was running. But word around the NFL was that George was slow to the hole, that he had forfeited some burst, that injuries had finally caught up to one of the game's great iron man tailbacks. "It wasn't as if the holes weren't there," acknowledged one AFC defensive coordinator. "They just closed quicker on him, and that is a tell-tale sign."
Around the league, Brown is just one of several younger backs taking over for veterans who have moved on. But given the near-universal admiration George engendered in the NFL and the expectations that the Titans will again vie for a title, he will doubtless get closer scrutiny than Kevan Barlow (San Francisco) or Rudi Johnson (Cincinnati).
He is, Brown suggested, ready to be placed under the microscope.
"I can only be me and do the things I do well," Brown said. "You hear about all the comparisons to Eddie, but I'm not him. Those are some big shoes, for sure to step into. But my feeling is you don't try to fill the shoes. You just bring your own new pair."
Around the league
League officials like to contend, especially when instant replay comes under fire, that the technology for the system is state-of-the-art. Well, the art may have gotten a little more refined this week, as the NFL was provided a demonstration of a new product created by Hawaii-based Nalu Technologies. The fledgling company, which includes University of Hawaii coach Junes Jones as an advisor, features technology that would provide an alternative to the league's long-time videotape exchange between teams, but also allow game officials better angles and quicker access. So advanced is the system, in fact, that officiating supervisors in New York could be watching the replays at the same time game officials are deliberating a replay challenge. Known as the "Nalu Capture," the system could be a boon to coaching staffs and the Denver Broncos, who used it during the '03 season, have already bought in. Look for the NFL, in terms of individual teams and also as a league, to get very involved in the system.
The San Francisco 49ers gambled that Tim Rattay would recover quicker than first anticipated from his springtime groin surgery and, with just a week before camp begins, it appears the dice came up winners for them. Rattay has been jogging for two weeks, began sprinting some this week, and is way ahead of schedule. While he will still take things easy early in camp, his rehabilitation has gone so well that the first-year starter figures to play in two or three preseason contests, and should be ready for the season opener. Credit the fifth-year veteran, who predicted his rehab would require just 12 weeks, for working hard to get back. And kudos to 49ers brass, which didn't jump on the panic button when Rattay was injured May 7, and was prepared to go with Ken Dorsey until their starter returned. Rattay actually believes that, because of a recovery regimen that stressed his "core" abdominal muscles, he will be much stronger in the long run.
Dennis Green is still a week removed from convening his first training camp as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and typical of the bad luck that always seems to visit the franchise, there is already a monkey wrench of sorts in his offensive plans. Second-year veteran Bryant Johnson, who is slated to be a starter in Green's three-wide receiver offense, still is recovering from a recently diagnosed stress fracture in his right foot. The foot injury apparently occurred during one of the Cards' workouts in June and Johnson, a first-round pick in 2003 who started 15 games as a rookie, is still wearing a protective boot. While Johnson remains hopeful he will be ready for the start of camp, there is a chance that he could miss some time at the outset. Even if he has discarded the boot by the beginning of camp, Johnson might be forced to take is easy for the first week or two. There are no indications that the former Penn State standout will miss extended practice time but, with Arizona installing a new system and first-year starting quarterback Josh McCown needing all the time he can get to work with his receivers, even a short absence will be a setback. Some observers tabbed Johnson a disappointment in 2003, as he was overshadowed by the performance of Anquan Boldin, the second-rounder who caught 101 passes and won rookie of the year honors. Johnson had 35 receptions but Green and his staff like what they have seen of him and project him as the most viable deep threat in the threesome that will also include first-rounder Larry Fitzgerald.
One of the more surprising occurrences of the week was the decision by Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, arguably the most high profile defensive player in the NFL, to end his long relationship with Maximum Sports Management. No one was more stunned than agents Eugene Parker and Roosevelt Barnes, who negotiated a deal three years ago that made Lewis the league's highest paid defensive player and included a $19 million signing bonus. "We don't know what happened," said Parker. "I mean, it's not like Ray came to us, said he had a problem, and left. We got a letter one day, which was probably written by another agent, informing us that Ray was no longer retaining us, and that was it. But we had a great relationship, Ray still has five years left on a contract that has stood the test of time, and we're never going to say anything bad about him. This kind of stuff, it happens, you know? I guess I'm to the point now, and this proved it, where I shouldn't be surprised by anything." The split, which Lewis has not addressed, is further evidence of the fickle nature of the business. When Lewis was on trial and facing murder charges in the deaths of two men after Super Bowl XXXIV, Barnes basically moved to Atlanta for the two months of the trial, which ended with the Ravens star pleading guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Parker was especially vocal when the NFL fined his client $250,000 for violating the personal conduct policy. The agent business is a cut-throat vocation, though, and it's no longer rare for a client to switch representation, even in the middle of a contract. Plus Lewis, for all his leadership skills, is a guy who can be swayed and who, apparently, hopes to increase his endorsement deals.
Speaking of players switching agents, Drew Rosenhaus and Jason Rosenhaus landed their second young veteran cornerback of the offseason, when St. Louis starter Travis Fisher opted for a change of representation. A two-year veteran and second-round pick in the 2002 draft, Fisher is an emerging player, who, at age 24, already has 26 starts on his resume. The former Central Florida standout tied for the team lead in interceptions (four) and passes defensed (12) in 2003, and totaled 75 tackles. Fisher is set to earn a minimum base salary of $380,000 and, not surprisingly, Drew Rosenhaus has already approached Rams officials about upgrading the deal. The team's other young starting cornerback, Jeremetrius Butler, got a new $15 million deal this spring because Washington signed him to a restricted free agent offer sheet and St. Louis matched it. Most personnel people view Butler and Fisher as equals. Earlier this spring, Rosenhaus Sports was retained by Denver corner Lenny Walls, another young defender on the rise, and a guy slated to start opposite Champ Bailey in the Broncos secondary.
The Buffalo Bills feel that linebacker Jason Gildon still has something left in the tank, but allow they want to see him on the field and check out his conditioning, before they begin making judgements on how he will fit into a defense that statistically ranked No. 2 in the league in 2003. "We definitely feel like he can help as a situational guy," said general manager Tom Donahoe. "Beyond that, we'll just have to see once camp starts." It isn't likely, unless Gildon has stumbled into the fountain of youth, that he will really get much chance to unseat strongide starter Jeff Posey, a terrific athlete Buffalo coaches feel will be even better in his second year in coordinator Jerry Gray's scheme. They also feel that left ends Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, both former second-round picks, continue to show increased maturity. Gray has mandated, however, more takeaways and thinks improved pressure on the pocket will help generate them, so Gildon could help in that regard. By the way, the $1.25 million contract and $500,000 signing bonus Gildon is said to have received are bogus numbers. The real deal: A signing bonus of $100,000, roster bonus of $100,000 and base salary of $900,000. That totals $1.1 million, or roughly the same amount Cincinnati was offering in the first season of a two-year deal. Gildon can also earn $200,000 in incentives, based solely on sacks.
The bad news for the players who tested positive for the designer steroid THG during the 2003 season is that they will be forever linked, even if somewhat flimsily, to a BALCO case that will only get more tawdry as the investigation moves forward. The good news (relatively speaking) is that none of the players faces suspension and they reached a settlement that isn't even as financially punitive as once believed. Initial reports were that Oakland defensive end Chris Cooper, Raiders center Barret Robbins and currently unemployed defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who continues to rehabilitate an ankle injury but still hopes to play this season, would be fined three game checks based on their '04 salaries. Not true. The fines are based on their 2003 salaries and, in the case of both Robbins and Cooper, that saves them a few bucks. It means Cooper will pay just $22,882, instead of the $58,823 he would have faced if the fines were calculated using '04 base numbers. Robbins' fine is $58,823, instead of $70,588. Stubblefield loses $44,411, based on his 2003 salary of $755,000.
Stat of the week: Among the top 20 rushers in NFL history, Eddie George ranks last in average yards per carry, with a mark of 3.7 yards. The only other member of the elite group under four yards is John Riggins, at 3.9 yards. Nearly 40 years after his retirement, Jim Brown still has the best mark, at 5.2 yards.
Punts: Although he recently rejected overtures from Tampa Bay, free agent wide receiver Antonio Freeman still wants to play in 2004, and is telling friends that he is in excellent condition. That said, it will take a good opportunity to get the attention of the former Green Bay standout. The depth chart with the Bucs, he felt, was a bit crowded. ... It appears the contract dispute between LaVar Arringon and the Washington Redskins, in which the star linebacker contends the team removed a $6.5 million roster bonus from the contract he signed late last year, won't be resolved until around mid-season. The NFL Players Association tried to book a hearing in August, but Arrington's representatives had conflicts with the available dates. It now looks like the hearing won't be convened until early November. ... In addition to a $4.5 million signing bonus, the five-year contract to which Pittsburgh inside linebacker James Farrior agreed on Thursday includes salaries of $660,000 (2004), $2.1 million (2005), $2.9 million (2006), $3 million (2007) and $3.24 million (2008). The deal could make it difficult for the Steelers to retain their other inside 'backer, Kendrell Bell, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. ... As of Thursday, the Steelers, who would like to heat up negotiations for Ben Roethlisberger, their first-round quarterback, were having trouble getting agent Leigh Steinberg to return their calls. ... Detroit probably will sign free agent offensive lineman Solomon Page, who has started at both tackle and guard in his career, before the start of camp.
The last word: "Even if you're fast, you can't play fast unless you know what the hell you're doing." -- Minnesota coach Mike Tice on how speedy, but very young, linebacker corps must concentrate on the mental side of the game in training camp
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.