CHICAGO -- Make a mistake at the quarterback position, particularly in expending a high-round draft choice on a passer who doesn't work out, and it's a misjudgment that often takes a long time to rectify. Certainly it's an error that forces other maneuvers, ones generally meant to compensate for the original blunder, and those follow-up efforts to make good sometimes only compound the original blunder. Then again, sometimes they turn out pretty well.
And where are those two guys now, in what should be their seventh NFL seasons, when they should be at the peaks of their respective careers? Released by Cincinnati two years ago, Smith couldn't cut it in training camp with Green Bay in 2004, and this spring could not even win a starting job in the NFL Europe League. For 17 starts, and just five touchdown passes versus 13 interceptions, the Bengals doled out over $12 million. The Bears gave up on McNown after only two seasons and 15 starts, swapped him to Miami, and he is out of the game and, apparently, out of the public eye as well.
So why is this germane to what transpired here Sunday, when the Bengals blistered the Bears 24-7 to go to 3-0 for the first time since the 1990 season? Here's why: After a long series of quarterback mistakes -- a litany of woes that included first first-round faux pas such as Jack Thompson (1979) and David Klingler (1992) before Smith in 1999 -- the Bengals seem to finally get it right with Carson Palmer in 2003. And Chicago, on the flip side, is still trying to reverse the McNown McStake.
Maybe the Bears got their guy in Rex Grossman, a first-round choice from the University of Florida in 2003, but no one will know until he demonstrates that he can stay healthy for more than three starts in a season. But in part because of Grossman's injury history, the Bears used a fourth-round pick this spring for Purdue's Kyle Orton, who on Sunday didn't exactly display the poise everyone had been suggesting to us that he possesses. Forced by Grossman's misfortunes to become the starter as a rookie, Orton tossed five interceptions. He looked a long ways from being the franchise's latest anointed savior and said afterward that he was "confused" by a Cincinnati secondary that really didn't show him many exotic things.
Palmer, on the other hand, was in control. An aggressive takeaway-hungry defense, one that has forced five or more interceptions in each of its last two outings, and which has a plus-12 turnover differential after three games, certainly helped Palmer out a lot. But as loquacious wide receiver Chad Johnson said afterward of Palmer: "You know, he just looks quarterback-ish." Johnson has used so many words in filibustering any unsuspecting soul who so much as wanders within shouting distance of his locker stall that he apparently has taken to inventing new ones. But the fact is, Palmer does, indeed, look like a quarterback. And he looks like one with whom the Bengals might win a lot of games in 2005 and beyond.
Mistakes at quarterback are costly, not just financially, but on the field as well. And the game here Sunday afternoon graphically illustrated that. A historically bungling Bengals franchise seems to have recovered from the poor decision on Akili Smith in 1999. The Bears? Well, they're still looking for someone who can redeem them for having chosen McNown that same year.
With the surprising Bucs at 3-0, maybe the folks in Tampa Bay who thought Jon Gruden had forgotten how to coach after winning Super Bowl XXXVII will calm down a little bit. We said maybe, because there are still apt to be some detractors out there who feel Gruden has lost his golden touch. The Bucs were, after all, just 12-20 in the two seasons following their championship year, and Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen had made some dubious moves, for sure.
Gruden, though, has returned to his roots this year, given that he's got a new Cadillac in the driveway. Misperceived by many as just a passing-game guru, Gruden has always been, at heart, a coach who wanted to pound the ball on the ground and to play great defense. In first-round tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, he's got a runner who can control tempo and a wily schemer still capable of confounding even the most studious quarterbacks.
"For some reason," defensive end Simeon Rice told us in training camp, "people seem to forget that [Kiffin] is still here and that we still have some pretty good players on our side of the ball."
Opponents are getting the message. The Bucs have one of the NFL's stingiest defenses, and while they aren't getting as many big plays as in the past, this is still a unit that knows how to win. Gruden and his staff knew after the Senior Bowl, when they coached Williams, that he was the back they coveted. All the rhetoric about swapping up for a quarterback or grabbing wide receiver Mike Williams in the first round was just so much smoke-blowing.
On the opening day of training camp, even without pads on and after just three hours of sleep, because he hadn't signed his first NFL contract until about 2:30 a.m., it was obvious Williams was special. He is a back who is much bigger than defenders seem to expect, so he can punish tacklers, but also possesses explosive-play skills. The only fear is that he could wear down if he continues at his current pace. Williams, playing Sunday with a sore left foot, toted the ball 37 times for 158 yards against the Green Bay defense. That's 88 carries in three games, a pace that projects to a mind-boggling 470 attempts for the year, or 60 more carries than the current league record. Tampa Bay is going to have to start getting more plays out of the passing game, but there were some signs of life Sunday, as wide receiver Joey Galloway, who can still run deep when his hamstring or groin aren't bothering him, scored twice.
Here's what you've got to like about the Bucs: They lead the division by a game over Atlanta, and historically, Kiffin and the defense have owned Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Want something else to like? OK, try this one: Late last week, Gruden snuck in free-agent punter Steve Baker for a "tryout."
What's so unusual about that? Well, the Bucs have no need for a punter, since incumbent Josh Bidwell is one of the NFL's finest and is firmly entrenched. But the allegedly auditioning Baker punts left-footed. And so does B.J. Sander of Green Bay, the Bucs' opponent Sunday. For years, punt returners have winced at having to face left-footed kickers, because the ball comes out differently and has a reverse spin. So during the "tryout," Baker drilled about a dozen punts each to Tampa Bay returners Mark Jones and Ike Hilliard. He failed the "tryout," of course, but the session helped prepare the Bucs for Sander Sunday afternoon. OK, so Jones had just two runbacks, one for 12 yards and the other for 11. But you've got to love the caginess, ingenuity and preparedness of Gruden, don't you? He thinks of every detail.
Coaching them up
If you've already grown weary of our infatuation with Nick Saban's coaching ability, well, you might want to stop reading right here. Still with us? OK then, same song, just a different (and redundant) verse. Which, we guess, makes it a chorus, right? The guy can coach. We said it after watching him in a June minicamp, repeated it in July at training camp, offered it as a refrain after the Miami upset of Denver in the opening week of the season, and might just remind everyone of it with each Dolphins victory.
Yep, we commiserate with our Miami-area journalist brethren who have to cover Saban on a daily basis. It's a ton easier to lob bouquets from a distance, or when your only exposure to the Dolphins coach is a couple interviews per year, as has been the case for us. But owner Wayne Huizenga hired Saban to win football games, and not to win friends and influence people, didn't he? And so in place of Dale Carnegie, he got a coach with NFL pedigree, who just happened to have spent the past decade in the college ranks. He also got a coach whose reputation, which definitely preceded him, hasn't quite rubbed players in the way of a martinet as many felt it would.
Only three weeks into his maiden voyage, and Saban already has rung up half as many victories as the Dolphins had in all of 2004. And, c'mon, be honest, how many readers out there thought that would be the case? Yeah, not many hands going up; that's what we thought. The Dolphins have a bye next weekend, then play at Buffalo and then (drum roll, please), get Ricky Williams back from his purple haze suspension.
Provided he hasn't fallen off the hashish wagon, Williams should help some, even though it didn't appear Sunday, in the victory over Carolina, that first-round tailback Ronnie Brown required much assistance. Saban helped silence the critics by handing the ball to his first-round draft choice 23 times, and Brown responded with 132 yards and his first NFL touchdown. So maybe the Dolphins should have chosen Brown's former Auburn teammate, Cadillac Williams, with the second overall pick in the draft. Brown figures to be a pretty good back as well. Saban has demonstrated that while he's a meat-and-potatoes guy on offense, he isn't above a gimmick or two.
On defense, despite having the oldest starting unit in the league, Miami has performed well and made timely plays. And as usual, the Dolphins are winning at home early in the season, where they now own a 43-8 mark in games played in August and September since the 1970 merger. Oh yeah, did we mention that this Saban guy can coach? Kudos, too, to fellow first-year coaches Mike Nolan in San Francisco and Cleveland's Romeo Crennel. Both kept their teams very competitive Sunday against superior opponents.
Oh baby, what we wouldn't give to be the agents for star defensive linemen Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis and Richard Seymour of New England. Both players will get new monster contracts before 2006 and their agents -- Gary Wichard represents Freeney and Eugene Parker does the bidding for Seymour -- are going to cash handsome commissions on those deals.
Noted one rival agent of the pending Freeney negotiations: "That's going to be a quarterback-like deal. OK, not a [Peyton] Manning quarterback-type deal. But a huge contract."
Neither player did anything Sunday to reduce his value, that's for sure. Despite once again being chipped and held and triple-teamed at times by the Cleveland blocking scheme, Freeney registered six tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. It marked the fourth time in Freeney's career that he rang up three or more sacks. The league's top sackman in 2004, Freeney has now become its most dominant front-seven defender. He personifies the term relentless, constantly spinning and countering and moving his feet, and never giving up on a play.
"He's just got so much energy and he never takes [a snap] off," Browns left offensive tackle L.J. Shelton said after Freeney's latest tour de force performance.
The same could be said for Seymour, who plays a different kind of game, but with similar results. Seymour can play inside or outside, use his strength or his slipperiness, and can absolutely take over a contest when the Patriots need him to do so. There were stretches in Sunday's victory at Pittsburgh that Seymour, who finished with four tackles and two sacks, was virtually unblockable and when he seemed to be willing his team to a win.
Pats management tweaked his contract a bit this summer to end his training camp holdout, but a much bigger bump in the ol' paycheck is coming in the offseason. Ditto for Freeney, who has an escalator that pumps his base salary $5 million next season. Indianapolis owner Jimmy Irsay and team president Bill Polian have been very systematic in locking up the franchise's biggest commodities, with the exception of tailback Edgerrin James. The next monster payday in Indianapolis will be Freeney's new deal.
Word is that St. Louis coach Mike Martz, one of the game's great offensive minds but a guy who sometimes outthinks himself, won't be around for 2006 if the Rams don't make the playoffs and win a postseason game or two. So a word of advice for Martz, a coach we like a lot, because he can fire up plays on the grease board like very few others and because he doesn't seem to care what the rest of the world thinks: Either do a better job of protecting star quarterback Marc Bulger, Mike, or plan on getting by with venerable backup Jamie Martin for the final month of the season.
Bulger threw for 292 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday's victory over Tennessee, but he also was sacked four more times and lost a couple fumbles. In three games now, Bulger, not exactly a power lifter, has gone down 15 times. And he's been hit on at least a dozen other occasions. He's on pace to absorb 80 sacks, which would be a league record for punishment. And he's also on pace to finish the season in traction.
It's tempting, given the impressive cadre of wide receivers the Rams possess (heck, backups Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald likely could start for some teams in the league), to keep throwing. But every drop-back by Bulger, especially with the shaky nature of the St. Louis offensive line, is putting him in harm's way. It's a disaster waiting to happen. And Martz, who hasn't won a Super Bowl as a head coach despite having championship-caliber talent on the offensive side during most of his tenure, can't afford the disaster of having Bulger go down.
By design, a St. Louis passing attack that mandates longer pass routes than are run by almost every other team in the NFL is going to dictate that the quarterback takes a ton of hits. Just ask Kurt Warner, who still carries wounds, both physical and psychological, from his days in the offense. But the Rams need to mix things up more, meaning Martz, even if against his better judgment, has to increase the running-game quotient. Steven Jackson got just 12 carries Sunday, and that isn't enough. On the plus side, Marshall Faulk, who had just nine "touches" in the Rams' first two games, equaled that number in Sunday's victory. Faulk carried six times for 50 yards and had three receptions for 31 yards and a score. Now that, Mike, is more like it.
Free safety Lance Schulters, signed by Miami as a free agent just before the start of the season, has two interceptions in three games. In his previous 22 starts, coming into the year, he had no pickoffs. His interception Sunday was a huge play in the Dolphins' victory over the Panthers. It looks like Minnesota made a wise move in dumping aging punter Darren Bennett in the final cutdown. Rookie Chris Kluwe has made the Vikings look really smart, with a monster gross average of 49.9 yards and a 42.3-yard net average through three games. He has four kicks inside the 20-yard line as well. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning went over the 30,000-yard passing mark Sunday, making him the second-fastest player in NFL history to achieve that milestone. It took Manning 115 games to reach 30,000 yards. Dan Marino did it in 114 contests. Indianapolis has surrendered just 16 points in three games, the best start in franchise history on defense. Atlanta defensive tackle Rod Coleman, one of the most disruptive interior players in the league and a guy who got shafted last season in the Pro Bowl balloting, had two more sacks Sunday afternoon. That gives him 14½ sacks in 16 starts with the Falcons. He also had five tackles, one pass defensed and a forced fumble. Philadelphia is now 9-0 at home when Terrell Owens is in the lineup. Oakland is 0-3 for the first time since the 1992 season. Green Bay is 0-3 for the first time since 1988. Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer, known primarily as a run-stuffer during his career, had three sacks against the New York Jets Sunday. He went into the game with seven career sacks in 57 appearances. Spicer also added six tackles, one pass defensed and a forced fumble. Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander ran for 140 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona Sunday. In his last three home games versus the Cardinals' defense, Alexander has 73 carries for 429 yards and nine scores. Jets "franchise" defensive end John Abraham, still angling for a long-term contract, continued his stellar play Sunday, with 10 tackles and a sack. Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp had an interception Sunday, the fourth of his career. But that's one more than the number of sacks Sapp has recorded in three games. The Buffalo offense has produced nine field goals, but just two touchdowns, in three games. The victory by Tampa Bay at Lambeau Field snapped the Bucs' notorious 13-game road losing streak to the Packers.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.