Stability at backup QB spot hard to find
Having stability at the backup QB position is a big edge for teams like the Jaguars (David Garrard), Titans (Billy Volek) and Chiefs (Todd Collins).
Fact is the 10-year veteran hasn't started a regular-season contest since Dec. 7, 1997, when he was with the Buffalo Bills. Since joining the Chiefs in '98, when he was claimed on waivers in late August, the former second-round draft pick, who had a three-year dry spell (1998-2000) in which he didn't register even one regular-season appearance, has thrown but 27 passes, and completed 18 of those attempts, just one for a touchdown.
More than statistics, though, Collins, who actually started 13 games for the Bills in 1997, has provided Kansas City a prized commodity that is sorely lacking around the NFL at the critical No. 2 quarterback position: Stability.
A proven backup who knows the offense, knows the ropes and understands and accepts his second banana role on the depth chart isn't quite as easy a job description to fill as some observers might think. That is why Collins, at age 33 and probably in store for another year of inactivity, certainly does not lack for respect from his bosses and from his teammates.
"It's always reassuring to know there is a veteran like Todd behind you," acknowledged Chiefs starter Trent Green. "He's a pretty nice safety net."
Indeed, the Chiefs are one of the few teams with the luxury of not worrying about having to walk the backup quarterback tight rope. Collins is working under a third different head coach during his Chiefs tenure. During that stretch, Kansas City had just one start logged by a backup, in 2000, when Warren Moon stepped in for an injured Elvis Grbac. But with Collins around, the Chiefs and coach Dick Vermeil know if Green ever goes down for a week or two, they have an able replacement who won't embarrass himself.
Most teams wish they could claim the same thing. Or at least wish they could retain a quality backup for more than just a season or two. For sure, the kind of longevity that the Chiefs have enjoyed with Collins is all but unheard of in the league. Every offseason, it seems, the quarterback carousel churns out reworked depth charts.
"One of the questions you ask yourself every year," Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said, "is about the backup quarterback situation. You're always worrying, 'OK, if my (starter) goes down, do I have a guy that I know will play well?' We've got two now (in Kelly Holcomb and Shane Matthews), but there are seasons when you just aren't as comfortable. And the turnover rate at the position, with guys moving around all of the time, is amazing."
There are six franchises that will go to training camp at the end of this month with No. 2 quarterbacks acquired during this offseason. And that doesn't account for the possibility of Doug Flutie bumping Rohan Davey down a peg on the New England depth chart. In all, between the six newcomers and incumbent quarterbacks who were elevated by their clubs, there figure to be at least 14 new No. 2 signal-callers in 2005.
That represents considerable volatility at a position whose profile has been enhanced markedly in the past decade. And that means having a player such as Collins -- or Tennessee's Billy Volek, Philadelphia's Koy Detmer, Houston's Tony Banks or Jacksonville's David Garrard -- is a big edge for those franchises. All of those backups have been with their respective teams for more than three seasons, so all go to camp without requiring a breaking-in period in a new offense.
Fact: The average leaguewide tenure for No. 2 quarterbacks with their current teams is just 1.7 seasons. That's a scary number.
In a recent interview with the Boston Herald, Collins said the big "challenge" to the No. 2 job was "you put in all the work for the game and then you're not getting tested on it." The bigger challenge for teams, though, is finding and keeping a player like Collins, a guy you feel comfortable will get a passing score if ever put to the test.
Around the league
• On the subject of backup quarterbacks, one name that always seems to elude mention when people talk about veterans still available, and who might yet fit into the No. 2 role somewhere, is that of Tim Couch. Despite his physical problems, and the fact Couch sat out the entire 2004 season, it would be premature at this point to write off the former Cleveland Browns starter and the top player chosen overall in the 1999 draft.
Although still rehabilitating from early February shoulder and elbow surgeries, and perhaps five weeks away from being able to cut loose at 100 percent velocity, Couch has begun throwing again, ESPN.com has confirmed. His current routine has him up to 45 passes, at a distance of about 35 yards, three times per week. Each of the sessions is being taped and, after he throws, Couch retreats to a video machine to scrutinize his mechanics. At some point in the near future, agents Tom Condon and Ken Kremer will send the tapes to one of IMG Football's quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator clients for more assessment.
On his current timetable, and assuming there are no physical setbacks, Couch may be able to audition for interested teams sometime next month. While such a workout would be a couple weeks into training camps, the timing could actually be fortuitous for Couch. By that point, coaches will have a handle on some of their younger backups, and perhaps be ready to bring in a proven veteran. And mid-August certainly wouldn't be too late for Couch to assimilate a playbook.
Couch is still just 27 years old, and if his arm is sound, there is no reason he can't play 10 more years in the league. His 59 career starts are more than 17 of the projected No. 1 quarterbacks around the league can claim on their resumes going into the 2005 season.
Whether or not Davis fulfills his potential in a Cleveland uniform, though, remains to be seen. The Browns aren't exactly shopping Davis around the league but there have been some casual trade discussions with at least one team, the Seattle Seahawks, and there could be a few other clubs interested as well.
A deal involving Davis, who averaged a gaudy 26 yards on 16 catches in 2004 before a toe injury prematurely ended his season after just seven appearances, could make sense for both franchises. The release of the troubled Koren Robinson means the Seahawks don't really have a viable vertical threat. Reliable veteran Bobby Engram, projected as the starter in Robinson's stead, is an accomplished receiver, but has always worked best out of the slot and is more noted as a possession guy. He has converted two-thirds of his catches into first downs, but in nine years, Engram has only eight receptions of 40 yards or more. And at age 32, Engram has started more than seven games in a season since 1999. The two veteran free agents signed in the offseason, Jerome Pathon and Joe Jurevicius, are also viewed more as intermediate receivers. And despite leading Seattle in receptions in three of the last four seasons, Darrell Jackson isn't a long-ball threat, even with a career 14.7-yard average. Davis would certainly stretch secondaries for coach Mike Holmgren and provide a lot more room in which the other receivers could operate.
From Cleveland's standpoint, Davis might be a bit extraneous. The coaches seem to like Dennis Northcutt and Antonio Bryant and the new football regime in Cleveland didn't use the third overall choice in the draft on Braylon Edwards, an engaging youngster with great marketing potential for a club that sorely needs to reconnect with its loyal fans.
One caveat: Davis is entering the final season of his original NFL contract, and any team interested in the former Virginia Tech standout will want to sign him to an extension. Then again, it might be worth it, especially if Dilfer's assessment is accurate, and Davis is poised for a breakout season. Agent Kennard McGuire said Friday there have been no extension discussions, but also noted that his client would not be averse to a trade. Davis has averaged 15.2 yards per catch in his career, and has scored a touchdown every 7.2 receptions, an excellent ratio.
• Agent Leigh Steinberg said tailback Ricky Williams has his weight up to 215 pounds this week. Still to be answered are these two burning financial questions: How will the $8.6 million award that the Miami Dolphins won against the erstwhile tailback be settled? And how much will Miami pay Williams this year? His salary for 2004 was to have been about $3.7 million. The minimum base salary for a five-year veteran, which is all some of his once and future teammates feel Williams should get, is $540,000. One has to believe, given how far down the road both sides are now on Williams' return, the Dolphins and Steinberg have worked out those issues.
• In the wake of the death of Hank Stram Monday afternoon, there were many stories authored about the innovative bent of the Hall of Fame coach, and deservedly so. But somewhat overshadowed, as writers documented the advances Stram promulgated on the field and in the area of weight-training, was the role he played in enhancing the profile of small schools and historically black colleges in the NFL. In the battle for talent that preceded the NFL-AFL merger, Stram definitely beat the bushes for quality players. And that meant going to some schools that weren't prominent yet on the NFL's radar screen.
"If Hank Stram is not in Kansas City," recalled Hall of Fame middle linebacker Willie Lanier, unearthed at Morgan State by Stram and the Chiefs scouting staff, "the outcome of my future might have been different. At that point and time, the doors were not quite as open as they are now. He created opportunities for which I am thankful."
Indeed, Stram was not only colorful, but clearly color-blind as well. And Lanier isn't the only player from a historically black school who owed Stram a debt of gratitude. In addition to Lanier, the roster of the Kansas City team that upset Minnesota in Super Bowl IV included players from Arkansas-Pine Bluff (defensive back Caesar Belser), Bishop College (defensive back Emmitt Thomas), Clark-Atlanta University (tight end Morris Stroud), Grambling (defensive tackle Buck Buchanan and safety Goldie Sellers), Jackson State (wide receiver Gloster Richardson), Prairie View (wide receiver Otis Taylor and defensive back Jim Kearney), Southern (wide receiver Frank Pitts and running back Robert Holmes), and Tennessee State (kick returner Noland Smith, defensive back Willie Mitchell and cornerback Jim Marsalis).
"He didn't care what color, what creed, whatever," said Bobby Bell, another Hall of Fame linebacker. "If you could play football, and play it under his rules and regulations, that was cool."
Some members of the former regime in Cleveland noted at the time that Myers, who has just 33 career starts in seven seasons, might be the best of the four former Browns headed to Denver. And they may have been correct. So far, Denver coaches seem excited by Ekuban, end Courtney Brown and tackle Gerard Warren. But at this week's mini-camp, Myers lined up ahead of Warren at nose tackle with the No. 1 defense. Some observers suggested the move was a not-so-veiled ploy by coordinator Larry Coyer to motivate Warren, a player of immense talent but one who has underachieved so far in his career. That might turn out to be the case. But no one should underestimate Myers, a guy who is solid against the run, has shown flashes of pass rush ability in the past, and is a better player than he's given credited for.
• What began as a brainstorm, a move by Joe Gibbs to counter his lack of experience in an instant replay system that allows for coaches to challenge on-field rulings, has now "officially" been rendered a bust. As first reported by the Washington Post earlier this week, Gibbs and the Redskins have opted not to retain Larry Hill, a retired referee who was hired in 2004 as the league's first full-time replay consultant. Hill's contract with the club expired last month, and given the Redskins' dismal experience with replays in '04, Gibbs apparently saw no sense in bringing him back. Washington lost five of its first six challenges last season.
Not that the poor replay record can be all lumped on Hill, who sat upstairs in a box, and advised the Redskins coaching staff on when a challenge should and shouldn't be made. According to one player who spoke to the newspaper, Hill was often overruled, and Gibbs admitted at one point he sometimes made unilateral decisions on replays. Anyone who saw the chaos that often transpired on the Redskins' sideline in '04 will have no trouble believing there was confusion on replay decisions. And at times that confusion, as it applied to replays, resulted in spotty clock management. For part of Gibbs' first tenure as Redskins head coach, the league had instant replay, but it did not involve a coaches' challenge system. Gibbs wasn't any more successful adapting to the replay system than he was in molding an anemic offense, based principally on the designs he employed in his first incarnation, to the manner in which defenses now attack the passing game. First-year Dolphins coach Nick Saban is said to be seeking a retired official to serve, in part, as a replay consultant.
Even if there was some wiggle room, Green Bay isn't likely to enjoy having Rosenhaus point another negotiating gun to its head (he also represents star wide receiver Javon Walker, another potential camp holdout), and wouldn't be apt to add time to the contract of a player who is 32, coming off two straight seasons in which he underwent knee surgery, and has a history of weight problems.
That said, the Packers' run defense could be suspect even with Jackson and might be downright flimsy without him. Plus, if Jackson isn't in camp, the organization won't have the opportunity to monitor his girth. The tackle spot certainly is an area of concern in Green Bay. The starting "under" tackle, Cletidus Hunt, skipped most of the offseason program for the second consecutive year. His lack of production after landing a fat contract two years ago, and a documented disinterest in the conditioning program, is maddening to the coaches. Green Bay has five other tackles on its roster and none has more than two seasons of NFL tenure. The quintet, in fact, totals just eight starts, 45 tackles and 5½ sacks. But one or more of the youngsters is going to have to step up.
Perhaps the most promising of the bunch, former undrafted free agent Cullen Jenkins, had a pretty nice year in 2004, with 28 tackles and 4½ sacks. But he is going to have to demonstrate more consistency this season. Donnell Washington, a third-round pick in '04, didn't play a single snap his rookie year. James Lee, who missed his 2003 rookie campaign, has been on injured reserve twice in two years. Colin Cole is a former practice squad player and rookie A.J. Lindsay is an undrafted free agent.
First-year coordinator Jim Bates, who will bring a lot of passion to the unit, unfortunately didn't bring along any of the tackles he had during his long Miami Dolphins tenure. So a potential holdout by Jackson could leave, literally and figuratively, a big hole. Still, the Packers at this point aren't prepared to make any kind of move to fill any holes in Jackson's wallet.
• Add former Michigan State wide receiver Agim Shabaj, who was declared academically ineligible for 2005, to the contingent of prospects in the supplemental draft. That brings to at least seven the number of players cleared by the NFL for the July 14 supplemental lottery. Even with the latest additions, and ongoing 11th-hour workouts by those who just got into the supplemental draft, the landscape hasn't changed much. Southern California defensive tackle Manuel Wright, who visited with more than a dozen teams Thursday, will clearly be selected, probably in the third or fourth round. Wide receiver Roscoe Crosby, the onetime two-sport star from Clemson, and Nevada-Las Vegas cornerback Charles Ealy could be late-round choices.
One prospect who might not be chosen, but who may have earned himself an invitation to someone's training camp as a free agent, is Texas Tech tailback Ivory McCann. At his recent workout, McCann (5-foot-8½, 168 pounds) was clocked at 4.30-4.38 in the 40 and could get an audition as a kick returner. Shabaj didn't return many kicks at Michigan State, but his sub-4.4 speed could merit some attention in that area.
• The good news for Ronald McKinnon is he is clearly the best veteran middle linebacker still in the free agent market. The bad news for the former Arizona Cardinals starter and nine-year veteran is no one seems to be looking for a middle linebacker right now. Two defensive coordinators, in unsolicited comments independent of each other, both mentioned McKinnon this week as a player whose availability at this late a date puzzled them. Alas, neither of the coordinators are employed by teams who are seeking help at middle linebacker.
Sure, McKinnon is 31, and he has probably lost a step to the ball. But despite starting only 10 games in '04, his fewest starts since his '96 rookie campaign, he finished third on the Cardinals' defense with 83 tackles. In his eight seasons as a starter, McKinnon has averaged 116.6 tackles. In the five seasons prior to 2004, he registered 100-plus tackles every year, an average of 131.6 stops in that stretch. And the former North Alabama standout, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and has played his entire career in Arizona, has missed just three games in his career. Given those accomplishments, it is surprising that some team hasn't signed McKinnon, who can likely be had at this point for a minimum-salary deal, as an insurance policy.
• He hasn't made an official announcement yet, but people close to Lynn Swann believe it's a fait accompli the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Hall of Fame member will seek the Republican nomination in the '06 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Swann five months ago formed a political committee, "Team 88," named for his familiar uniform number. He has a campaign office in Pittsburgh and recently staged a fundraising event at Heinz Field. But the biggest indication Swann intends to seek a nomination that would then pit him against Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell in what likely would be a hotly contested governor's race is he is confiding to some of his former teammates that he will run.
It would be an interesting contest, given that Rendell is an unabashed Philadelphia Eagles fan, and has long appeared on a postgame radio show. Swann will face some challengers for the Republican nomination, some lifetime politicians more practiced in issues than he has appeared to be. To this point, Swann has spoken only in generalities about his stances, and he's going to have to do a lot more than flash four Super Bowl rings to dazzle voters. "At the moment," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, "celebrity trumps policy. But at some point, he's got to be more definitive about what kind of governor he will be."
• Having already used the title "The Best and the Brightest," celebrated author David Halberstam had to come up with something different for his book on New England head coach Bill Belichick. So while the book does indeed examine the elements that have made Belichick the best and brightest coach in the NFL, it's simply called "The Education of a Coach." We're betting, given the superb combination of Halberstam and Belichick, the read will be a lot more compelling than its relatively uninspiring title. It's set to be released in November.
"I've been fascinated by Bill Belichick for more than 20 years, going back to the time when he was a young coach in his early 30s, working with the linebackers on the Giants," Halberstam said. "I was fascinated by the fact he seemed so un-coachlike. He wasn't in any way charismatic. If anything, quite the reverse, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else."
And, of course, still is.
Regular readers of the "Tip Sheet" are already familiar by now with my admiration for Belichick. But I am a huge fan of Halberstam as well, in part because of a kindness he once showed me. While working in Indianapolis in the early and mid-'80s, one of my assignments was to help cover the Indiana Pacers once the NFL season concluded. In 1986, I was assigned to do a feature on then-Pacers coach Jack Ramsay. Having read Halberstam's book "The Breaks of the Game," his account of the 1979-80 season he spent with the Portland Trail Blazers, I figured him for a Ramsay expert of sorts. And through his publisher, I scored a half-hour telephone interview with Halberstam, in which he provided tremendous insights into Ramsay and his philosophies. Here's the kicker: Halberstam did the interview in the middle of Game 7 of the '86 World Series, the New York Mets' victory over Boston, and even provided some commentary on the contest. A terrific guy and, I'm assuming, a terrific book coming in four months.
• Punts: The Broncos made some minor adjustments to the three years remaining on the contract of Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun, acquired from Carolina in an offseason trade. The reworking doesn't add any value to the contract -- Sauerbrun will get the same $4.195 million he was due -- but essentially makes $300,000 of the deal easier to earn. The team converted a $100,000 workout bonus for 2005 into a roster bonus. Similar workout bonuses for the 2006-07 seasons were converted to base salary. Just a guess, but a slightly educated one, on the Alex Smith contract. Look for the top pick in the draft to reach an agreement with San Francisco two or three days before the team's July 28 report date for camp. Atlanta general manager Rich McKay said starting safety Bryan Scott likely will miss all of camp as he rehabilitates from offsesason shoulder surgery. The Falcons feel Scott will be ready, though, for the start of the season. St. Louis coaches have been mightily impressed with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick from Harvard. "I don't know if I've ever been around a quarterback that absorbed what we've done with him as quickly as he did," said coach Mike Martz. The left offensive tackle position is the spot on the line that always merits the most attention. And given that it is the most critical pass protection position, that's justifiable. But there could be increased focus on right tackles in 2005, since as many as half the teams in the league could have new starters. Dallas officials are quietly confident defensive end Chris Canty, a fourth-round draft choice, will be able to participate in the majority of training camp. The former Virginia star was the nation's top-rated defensive end entering the 2004 season, but suffered knee and eye injuries that required surgeries. If he is healthy, the Cowboys got a steal in Canty, a guy with a huge, basketball-type frame and great upfield quickness.
• The last word: "What you find out quickly is that the No. 1 sport in the world is soccer. You go some places and talk about (American) football and they think that you're crazy. People in Australia think the NFL is for sissies." -- San Francisco safety and international vacationer Tony Parrish, the 49ers' good will ambassador for the Oct. 2 game against Arizona in Mexico City, on how football is perceived in other countries.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .