Trouble brewing in Minnesota
It's probably a bit premature, but with a new owner getting anxious, Mike Tice could be on the hot seat in Minnesota following the Vikings' 0-2 start.
If you've ever been Zygi-ed, geez, you know how painful it can be. Not an especially pleasant experience, folks, from what we hear. OK, the truth is, we haven't a clue about what it's like to be Zygi-ed. For that matter, neither does anyone else in the NFL, because new Minnesota Vikings owner Zygmunt "Call Me Zygi" Wilf hasn't been around long enough yet to have, well, Zygi-ed anybody. Not yet.
During the summer, Trent Dilfer confided to ESPN.com that he was "an emotional wreck" last year sitting on the bench in Seattle, knowing that time was probably running out on his football career and on his chance of again being a starter in the league. But Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren did an admirable thing last spring, honoring a promise to Dilfer to trade him if a team wanted him as a starter and sending him to the Cleveland Browns. One of the game's good guys, Dilfer led the Browns to their first victory under coach Romeo Crennel on Sunday, shredding the Green Bay Packers with 21 completions in 32 attempts for 336 yards. Dilfer threw three touchdown passes, no interceptions, wasn't sacked a single time and rung up a gaudy 131.8 passer rating. He connected six times with another favorite of ours, tight end Steve Heiden, for 104 yards and two scores.
Observations on the Week 2 action from one current assistant personnel director and one NFC pro scout:
• "It's going to big a big year for [Colts tailback] Edgerrin James, at least if defenses keep trying to play the way Jacksonville did on Sunday. It seems like the philosophy now is to just drop eight [defenders] against [Peyton] Manning and try to get him to grow impatient and force some balls. He's a little too smart, though, and he's going to keep handing the ball to James if defensive fronts stay 'soft' against him."
• "Michael Vick still doesn't get it. All his apologists keep saying he's making progress as a passer. It sure doesn't look like it from in front of the television or on the video, either. Great athlete. Just an average passer, if that, at this point. He missed [wide receiver] Michael Jenkins twice Sunday on what might have been touchdowns. And for all the plays he makes with his feet, the guy still takes way too many sacks. I know it's only two games, but he's been sacked once every eight drop-backs already. That's not improvement. That's his norm."
• "If you saw [tailback] Ron Dayne on Sunday, you'd swear the Broncos could put anybody back there and he'd gain yards. Dayne looks a lot quicker behind that blocking scheme and he really came up huge for the Broncos on their last [game-winning] drive."
• "If Denny Green doesn't get that running game going out in Arizona, [quarterback] Kurt Warner is going to get killed. It doesn't matter that Warner threw for over 300 yards again. He got sacked five times, hit about five or six more [times] and fumbled three times. Teams are just going to ignore the run and come after him, and he can't withstand that kind of a beating."
• "I'll tell you what: The three rookie coaches -- [Nick] Saban, [Mike] Nolan and [Romeo] Crennel -- are all doing nice jobs. Let's be honest. Did you think any of those guys would have even one win at this point? With those teams? But they've all got one and they've been competitive and played hard. Good for them."
• "I watched the Jets game pretty closely Sunday, and I don't care what they say, [quarterback] Chad Pennington is still not recovered from that shoulder surgery. The guy has no juice on a lot of the passes he throws. It was like duck-hunting season on some of those balls."
• "I know it's not [chic] to consider offensive-line coaches as head-coaching candidates. But some team needs to look at [Steelers line coach] Russ Grimm. It was just a couple years ago that the Steelers had one of the worst rushing years in their history. Look at them now. They take a guy who wasn't even drafted [Willie Parker], put him behind that line and make him a star. Remember, they're starting a whole new right side on the line, and the tackle [Max Starks] is basically a rookie, since he hardly played last year. Grimm has done one hell of a job there."
• "Jeff Fisher [of Tennessee] can flat-out coach. That team was absolutely [lousy] last week, but he worked them hard, got them fired up about playing a [Baltimore] team they don't like, and just whipped the Ravens."
• "I know one of your guys told you this last week, but I don't mind repeating it. The teams that passed on a chance to trade for [Kansas City backup tailback] Larry Johnson last year ought to be shot."
• "I saw where you wrote last week that New England might use more 4-3 fronts this year. Not a bad observation. Except I really don't think, even with the talent they have on the line, the Patriots have enough real depth there."
|Heard in the press box|
|Now that it looks like Reuben Droughns is going to be the starting tailback in Cleveland, the Browns might try to trade one of their other backs before the deadline. A lot of teams would love to get Lee Suggs, but he can't stay healthy, and that's a concern. ... There's plenty of finger-pointing going on in Houston, and the fall guy might well be [offensive coordinator] Chris Palmer. The Texans changed a lot of stuff this summer, and let [offensive-line coach Joe] Pendry get more involved in the protection schemes. But that and the quicker drops haven't helped quarterback David Carr much in the first two games. Carr was doing some woofing at his offensive line in Sunday's game. ... Second-year veteran Demorrio Williams may have supplanted Keith Brooking as the Falcons' best outside linebacker now. He still makes some mental errors but compensates with his athleticism. Brooking plays with his head, but his feet don't get him to the ball like they used to. ... Buffalo used backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb to try to jump-start its offense on Sunday and we could see more of that in coming weeks. J.P. Losman, to his credit, isn't turning the ball over. But he's basically a rookie and he's going to have some rough spots, especially when he goes against experienced defenses like the one Tampa Bay has. There are some recognition skills he just hasn't developed yet. ... The Lions desperately need to shore up the left offensive-tackle position but haven't made any moves to acquire a veteran to play there. That might change, though, if teams continue to put pressure on quarterback Joey Harrington. ... There might still be a chance that the Seahawks float a long-term contract proposal to tailback Shaun Alexander before the end of the season. And a chance, too, that he'll seriously consider it. ... Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome is one of the most patient men in the world. But you've got to wonder how long his patience will hold out with [head coach] Brian Billick. ... Ravens offensive coordinator and former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel would love a shot at the Minnesota job at the end of this season if it's open.|
Following the embarrassing home loss to Tampa Bay in the season opener, Wilf, who paid $600 million for one of the NFL's most underachieving franchises, and then saw it underachieve against the Bucs, hinted he and his brother/partner, Mark (Marki?) Wilf, might get more hands-on in the near future. Wilf acknowledged that he needs to get the right people in the right places, allow folks to do their jobs, break out the electron microscope and begin scrutinizing everyone from the top of the football food chain down to the custodial department.
Translation: Zygi sounds like he's fixing to get jiggy with the notion of rolling a few heads. Tossing a few hearty Norseman over the starboard side of the creaky ol' Vikings ship that sits in front of the team complex might become more than just an itch with a few more ignominious defeats such as Minnesota has suffered the first two weeks of the season. Because of the thriftiness of former owner Red McCombs -- who spent the final two years of his failed stewardship paring the payroll, cutting the management staff down to the smallest in the NFL, and refusing to sign anyone of import to a contract extension -- Wilf inherited a payroll chock full of lame ducks. And their ducks might soon be cooked.
Tice and his assistants are working on one-year contracts that expire at the end of January 2006. The front office staff -- including very talented and highly respected vice president Rob Brzezinski, who has worked under duress for the last two years and would have little trouble locating a job elsewhere -- is working on deals that lapse on Feb. 28, and the scouts' contracts are up June 1. So Wilf can clean house and not have to concern himself with paying off contracts that have time remaining on them. And the broom-to-the-butt approach might well commence with Tice, who already forfeited 10 percent of his league-low $1 million salary as his NFL-imposed penalty for scalping Super Bowl tickets.
Perhaps the one saving grace for Tice is that his team resides in the laughable NFC North, in which the four teams own an aggregate record of 2-6 and no one seems capable of running away from the rest of the pack. The teams tied for the division lead, Detroit and Chicago, are quarterbacked by a human roller coaster (Joey Harrington) and a fourth-round rookie (Kyle Orton), respectively. Does either of those two guys send shivers through anyone's spines?
Certainly the Vikings have enough talent, even minus Randy Moss, to rebound. It's hard to believe that Daunte Culpepper, who had one of the greatest statistical seasons of any quarterback in NFL history in 2004, can get any worse than he's been the first two games, in which he tossed eight interceptions and zero touchdown passes. Or that an offense that has turned the ball over on a dozen of its 24 possessions can't turn things around.
Tice better hope there's a 180-degree reversal coming, and soon, or else he's going to be pouring the cement for some shopping mall that Wilf has under construction. The one thing that could save him is that there is no one on the Vikings staff who has ever been a head coach before.
One other guy on the early hot seat (and, yes, we know one-eighth of the season is awful early to be firing up Old Sparky): Dom Capers of the Houston Texans, also 0-2, sporting an owner, Bob McNair, who has ramped up the expectations for this fourth season of his expansion team. Capers piloted his first expansion project, the Carolina Panthers, to a conference championship game berth in only its second season. But the Texans don't look very close to being ready to challenge for the playoffs anytime soon.
It's convenient to blame the lack of progress on quarterback David Carr, the first overall selection in the 2002 draft. It's even easier to blame offensive coordinator Chris Palmer -- who was fired Monday -- for Carr's stunted advancement. But Capers has always been hailed as a defensive guru, a schemer whose 3-4 front created opportunities for sacking the quarterback, and for taking the ball away. Over the last two seasons, the Texans have the second-fewest sacks in the league, and have just two in two outings in 2005. Meanwhile, Carr, dumped eight times by the Pittsburgh defense on Sunday, has been sacked 13 times in two games. Capers could be the next Texan sacked.
We forget sometimes, in discussing just how resilient the Carolina Panthers can be, how the club's uncanny ability to rebound comes from the mind-set instilled by coach John Fox. Far too underrated by the national media at times, Fox doesn't exactly own the classic "what, me worry?" countenance. Fact is, he usually looks a little edgy, a bit on the high-strung side. But you're never going to see Fox reach for the panic button. And that means a lot to his players.
"He doesn't change," agreed defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, "and he doesn't change the way we play, no matter how bad things look. Because of him, this is a pretty even-keel team. We just go out and play our game. We stick to the formula." And that formula -- run the ball, play great defense, don't turn the ball over and always pay attention to special teams -- was on display again Sunday as the Panthers upended the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
It was precisely the kind of situation in which the Panthers thrive: coming off an opening-day loss, with stud defensive tackle Kris Jenkins lost for the season to a severe knee injury, poised to start the season a potentially disastrous 0-2. So what does Carolina do? Of course, it bounces the Pats, 27-17, and restores the faith (at least temporarily) of all the pundits who felt the Panthers were a viable playoff contender.
OK, so the win didn't exactly follow Fox's script, since oft-inconsistent quarterback Jake Delhomme, who seems to be equal parts brilliant and butcher, tossed an interception that Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel ran back for a touchdown. But Carolina pounded tailback Stephen Davis into the New England line 25 times and, although he averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt, he controlled the tempo and scored three times on 1-yard runs.
The Panthers shackled Pats tailback Corey Dillon, and New England helped by calling just 16 running plays, versus 46 passes. And the Panthers, under first-year kicking games coach Danny Crossman, played superb special teams. Especially notable was the work of punter Jason Baker. The fifth-year veteran, who is replacing perennial Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun, who wore out his welcome in Carolina, kicked seven times. He banged four punts inside the New England 20-yard line, forced a pair of fair catches, and had just one touchback. The Pats totaled zero punt return yards. For the day, Baker averaged 42.1 yards gross and, more important, 39.3 yards net. The Panthers had 128 yards themselves on punt returns and 105 yards on kickoff runbacks. Little wonder their average drive started at the Carolina 38-yard line.
On the flip side, largely because of the special teams' efforts, New England started, on average, at its own 22-yard line. That 16-yard differential was huge. The Panthers scored a pair of touchdown on drives that originated in New England territory, one time after a punt return of 76 yards by cornerback Chris Gamble. And speaking of Gamble, he and his cornerback partner, Ken Lucas, combined for 16 tackles, playing great run support and not surrendering much run-after-catch yardage to the Pats' receivers.
A huge victory, indeed, for the Panthers. And for John Fox, too.
So much for the misguided notion that opposing defenses were going to be able to keep Terrell Owens from getting vertical this season. In the second half of the '04 campaign, even before the ankle injury that sidelined the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver for the final two games of the year regular season and two playoff contests, secondaries did just about everything they could to keep Owens from getting deep.
The Eagles adjusted, including in last week's Monday night defeat at Atlanta, by mostly throwing to Owens on crossing routes. In his final six appearances last season, including Super Bowl XXXIX, Owens scored just two touchdowns, one of four yards and the other of 10 yards. Owens' history is such, though, that you simply aren't going to keep him out of the end zone very long. Nor is a defense going to keep him from making the big scoring play very often.
The end of Owens' so-called slump came Sunday, in the first 19 minutes of a rout of the overmatched San Francisco 49ers. Owens scored first on a 68-yard catch, his longest touchdown since 2003. His second score, early in the second quarter, was a 42-yard catch. In the first quarter alone, Owens went for 101 yards on just four grabs. He finished the day with five receptions for 143 yards, his second straight 100-yard performance of the season.
Owens averaged 23.3 yards per touchdown catch in 2004 and Sunday certainly demonstrated that, no matter what coverage scheme teams throw at him, he's still a big play waiting to happen. Owens now has a touchdown every 7.02 receptions, an excellent ratio, one that compares favorably to that of the amazing Randy Moss, who has a touchdown every 6.36 receptions.
One last pass-catching item on the Eagles, who sure rebounded nicely from Monday night's loss: In camp, the coaches talked a lot about the progress of third-year veteran L.J. Smith and how they wanted the tight end to be a more significant factor in the passing game. Smith caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers.
A neat father-son story in the league Sunday, with Indianapolis second-year tailback and former practice squad player Ran Carthon scoring his first NFL touchdown and his more famous father, Cleveland offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, calling a nifty game as the Browns and rookie coach/all-around nice guy Romeo Crennel notched their first win.
His scant playing time aside, Carthon, who is essentially the No. 4 tailback on the Colts' depth chart, was aware enough to understand the audible that Peyton Manning checked to on third-and-goal from the Jacksonville 6-yard line. Carthon burst through a big hole off the right side that was created principally by pulling left guard Ryan Lilja. "He's a sharp young player," Manning said of Carthon, "and I'm sure part of that is having been around the game and the [NFL] environment so much."
As heartwarming as the Carthon story was, though, we can't help but ask: What in the heck was a fourth-string tailback, a guy who entered Sunday's game with exactly zero career rushes and who had touched the ball one time before scoring the winning touchdown, even doing in the game in that kind of pressure situation? Colts coach Tony Dungy pointed out that star Edgerrin James, who carried 27 times for 128 yards in his first-ever 100-yard performance against the run-tough Jacksonville defense, had tired legs. Backups Dominic Rhodes (shoulder) and James Mungro (knee) were dinged up.
Sorry but, in the case of James, so what? In past years, and most notably in 2004, the Colts staff removed James in some "red zone" situations. Other times, he took himself out of the game when Indianapolis was inside the 20-yard line. But, hey, owner Jimmy Irsay is paying James $8.1 million this season, on the one-year "franchise" tailback qualifying offer. If you're raking in that kind of dough, you need to be on the field for key plays like the one in which Carthon carried Sunday, tired legs or not.
As for Maurice Carthon, well, he schemed up and then called a very aggressive game against the Green Bay Packers, and the result was a 336-yard passing day and three touchdown tosses for Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer. The Browns and Carthon didn't try to nurse their late lead, and put the game away on a 62-yard scoring pass to tight end Steve Heiden. Crennel is a terrific guy. Ditto Carthon. Congratulations to both men and to the Cleveland organization.
The training camp rallying cry of the Cincinnati Bengals was "Do your job!" -- a message coach Marvin Lewis had printed on T-shirts and distributed to his players when they reported to Georgetown (Ky.) University this summer.
But the quiet mantra emanating from Lewis' office for the past two summers was this: Get off to a good start. That the Bengals finished 8-8 in each of Lewis' first two seasons was indicative, for a franchise that has not posted a winning campaign since 1990, of the strides the team has made. But the .500 record was also a reminder that the Bengals were one of the worst September teams in the league and that, to make a legitimate playoff run, Cincinnati had to win some games in the opening month of the season. Well, it's two games into 2005, and the Bengals are 2-0 for the first time since 1995, with another winnable game (at Chicago next Sunday) on the calendar this month.
When we saw the Bengals in camp this summer, even on a day that Lewis agreed was the worst the team had to that point and with quarterback Carson Palmer uncharacteristically errant, there was a sense that Cincinnati could be an emerging club. Most people point, and justifiably so, to the offense, which features more than enough playmakers and is the lone offense in the NFL to return all 11 starters intact from 2004. It's easy to argue that in Palmer, explosive (and loquacious) wide receiver Chad Johnson and tailback Rudi Johnson, the Bengals have a terrific offensive trinity. Complementary wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh is a fine No. 2 receiver and Lewis now seems vindicated in insisting that tailback Chris Perry, the 2004 first-round selection who barely got on the field as a rookie, is a nifty alternative when Rudi Johnson needs a rest.
But the defense, especially cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James, also has stepped up. It took three years, but Lewis now has his kind of people on defense. And in O'Neal and James, the Bengals have basically taken two castoffs and transformed them into one of the NFL's best cornerback tandems. O'Neal intercepted Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper three times on Sunday. Not bad for a guy who was so buried in the doghouse of Denver coach Mike Shanahan before being traded to the Bengals that the Broncos wanted him to play wide receiver. James also had an interception and the two corners combined for 10 tackles and six passes defensed.
Yipes, stripes, the Bengals have got 'em. And for the first time in a decade and a half, they might have a playoff team, too.
Forget the talk that Indianapolis defensive tackle Corey Simon is playing for his future. Contrary to reports, including one in an ESPN.com "Tip Sheet" two weeks ago, the $8 million option bonus the Colts owe Simon next spring is fully guaranteed. It's guaranteed for skill and injury and there is also a non-exercise penalty of $8 million. So if Simon is injured, the Colts still owe him the money. If he is released, he still gets paid. And if the Colts don't exercise the option, yep, he collects then too. The upshot is that Simon will be around in 2006, meaning he'll earn a whopping $16.045 million in his first two seasons with the Colts, and $20 million if he sticks around through 2007. Simon logged 26 snaps on Sunday and, although he's still overweight and out of shape, is starting to make some difference. He's clearly, and quickly, becoming a locker room leader. ... The Carolina defense held New England to a paltry 36 rushing yards despite getting no tackles from the tackle tandem of Jordan Carstens and Kindal Moorehead, the pair of youngsters who replaced the injured Kris Jenkins. ... Kudos to Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, who played through a painful shoulder injury, posted four tackles, returned an interception for a touchdown and had another pass defensed. ... For the second week in a row, the Arizona Cardinals opened with a five-man defensive line. ... The Cardinals were inside the St. Louis 12-yard line four times Sunday and failed to score a touchdown. ... Cleveland inside linebacker Andra Davis had a career-best 19 tackles in the victory at Lambeau Field. The win was the first for quarterback Trent Dilfer in seven starts at Lambeau. ... Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith became the 12th player in NFL history to record more than 800 receptions. ... Colts wideout Marvin Harrison, with three catches, moved into sixth place all-time in career catches. ... The San Francisco offense managed just 142 yards in the 49ers' loss at Philadelphia. ... Just one week after rookie Thomas Davis looked lost against the Saints, veteran Marlon McCree replaced him as the Carolina starting strong safety. Davis played some, but the best position for the Panthers' first-rounder might still be at linebacker. ... Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just 32 times in two games. But he is averaging 14.8 yards per attempt and 20.5 yards per completion. ... Baltimore star tailback Jamal Lewis, the centerpiece of the Ravens offense, has just 26 carries in the first two games of the season. On Sunday, he carried only 10 times, and for just 9 yards. ... Reject defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch is giving the young Tennessee defensive front nice veteran leadership and, on Sunday, he had three sacks. Vanden Bosch is a feel-good story, a guy who has come back from two ACL tears, and whom very few teams even looked at in free agency this spring.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.