Bengals made the right choice with Palmer
After years of bad choices at QB, the Bengals seem to have finally found the guy who can lead them to the next level.
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.
There's an old NFL adage suggesting that when you've got a big gun, shoot it. The San Diego Chargers loaded up their biggest bazooka, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, fired him 27 times Sunday night, and not coincidentally, earned their first victory of the season. Tomlinson carried 21 times for 192 yards and three touchdowns, caught six passes for 28 yards and also threw a TD pass. Those six catches marked his first receptions of the season, this from a guy who averaged 72.8 catches his first four seasons, including grabbing 100 balls only two years ago. Tomlinson averaged a mere 19 touches in the first two games. His 27 touches in the rout of the New York Giants were good for 220 yards, and the San Diego offensive staff would do well to stick to that formula.
Observations on the Week 3 action from two pro scouts, one from each conference, and from one former personnel director:
• "It didn't take long for the Saints to go from being pitied to being pitiful again, did it? God, I wish we had some of their talent around our team. But the quarterback, in our estimation, isn't a guy you can win with, and they have got to be one of the most undisciplined teams around. For the second week in a row, they put themselves in a hole by fumbling the opening kickoff. And then, when they got back into the game in the fourth quarter, [free safety] Dwight Smith gets a taunting penalty. You can't be doing that kind of [stuff], right? But they do it all the time."
• "I don't like to second-guess Philadelphia, because that is one smart team, and they don't often do dumb [stuff]. But they could have blown that game Sunday by not activating [kicker Todd] France for the day, just as an insurance policy. They knew [David] Akers might not make it through with that injury. I don't care how good [Akers] looked in the Friday practice. Suit up the other guy, just in case. Believe me, they would have been kicking themselves, pun intended, had they lost because they had a linebacker trying to kick extra points and a deep snapper handling the kickoffs. I can't believe they weren't smarter than that."
• "Let me ask you something: On even one play Sunday, did you see [Randy] Moss or [Terrell] Owens playing defensive back? No, right? So enough, OK, about this great matchup between these two guys. They weren't playing each other. They were playing the other team's secondary. And the Eagles won the game, which is what matters, not who caught the most balls."
• "You can tell [Eagles quarterback] Donovan McNabb is hurting. He's hardly looking to run at all. He's got four carries [for 8 yards] in three games. That tells you something."
• "I'm thinking the Jets are about due for a big-time explosion by [offensive coordinator Mike] Heimerdinger. He's a vertical-pass guy and they aren't getting the ball deep. Hell, with four offensive touchdowns, they really aren't getting the ball anywhere. Their wideouts had six catches for 46 yards Sunday, and that isn't how he likes to play the game. Dinger is a stretch-the-field guy. The Jets are probably stretching his patience pretty thin right now."
• "One reason that [Seattle quarterback] Matt Hasselbeck has been steadier this year is because they are starting [wide receiver] Bobby Engram now. He's always been a great slot receiver, but the guy is making plays on the outside, and he's a great double-move receiver. And he isn't nearly as schizophrenic as [deposed wide receiver] Koren Robinson was."
• "The Browns need to keep [veteran wide receiver] Antonio Bryant away from the kid, [first-round wideout] Braylon Edwards. Bryant has become a good player but he's still immature and he and Edwards both drew [taunting] flags Sunday that really hurt the offense. If Bryant ever grows up, he could be a good player, but he does [stupid] stuff, and you don't want it rubbing off on Edwards, believe me."
• "I don't know where the Eagles' offense would be without [tailback] Brian Westbrook. He's tough to cover in space, he runs harder than people think, and I really feel like they'd be pretty ordinary without him."
• "I know Buffalo just wants [quarterback J.P.] Losman to manage the game, but they're going to have to start turning him loose a little more. Three [passing] first downs in two games, and throwing for under 100 yards, that's not going to cut it in this league. They need to start taking some chances down the field and, if he makes some mistakes, well, you live with them. That's why they got rid of [Drew] Bledsoe, so they could develop this guy, so start developing him."
• "[Falcons quarterback Michael] Vick actually showed some signs of accuracy from the pocket against a pretty good Buffalo defense."
• "I watched two terrific safeties Sunday who never get enough credit, Tony Parrish [San Francisco] and Madieu Williams [Cincinnati]. Williams is a great combo guy. He can play up close to the line and also cover. A nice, young player."
• "You want to see a corner play run support, watch the [Ike] Taylor guy from Pittsburgh. He had about a dozen tackles [actual count: 13 tackles] against the Patriots. He just flies up to support the run."
• "What a bonehead play by [Steelers wide receiver Antwaan] Randle El Sunday, trying to lateral to Hines Ward after a long catch. It cost Pittsburgh a score."
• "Carolina has to start getting the ball to someone other than [wide receiver Steve] Smith. It's OK that he's their go-to guy. But he's their only guy right now. [Keary] Colbert [two catches for 11 yards in two games and shut out on Sunday] isn't showing up like he did last year for them. Smith had a huge day Sunday [11 receptions for 170 yards and three scores], but no one else did anything."
|Heard in the press box|
|There are a lot of tailbacks being shopped around the league right now. In addition to Michael Bennett (Minnesota) and Lee Suggs (Cleveland), Dallas would send Anthony Thomas somewhere for the right price and Houston might deal Tony Hollings if anyone is interested. His recent off-field escapades have cost Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher his endorsement deal with the local Cadillac dealers. The company recently voided his contract. Dallas released deep snapper Jeff Robinson because he cost too much, and went on the cheap with rookie Jon Condo, and it's costing the Cowboys dearly. Condo has botched a couple snaps, the latest coming Sunday on an extra point, and Bill Parcells could be looking for a new snapper real soon. Deposed Houston Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer will be back in the league in 2006, even if just as a quarterbacks coach. As much as the Cincinnati players like Leslie Frazier, cut loose as the Bengals' defensive coordinator after last season, they love the schemes his successor, Chuck Bresnahan, has installed. The designs are aggressive, but sounder than what Frazier had, they feel. Bengals coaches love the fire and tenacity of first-round linebacker David Pollack. But the former Georgia star is making too many mental errors, and poor judgements, and the staff chalks that up to the fact that Pollack missed virtually all of camp in a contract dispute. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is making more calls at the line of scrimmage than ever before. With coordinator Charlie Weis gone, the staff has given Brady more latitude, and he has done more audibling and checking off. As many as 60-70 percent of the plays have been decided at the line of scrimmage on "check with me" calls. If either Chad Pennington or backup Jay Fiedler has any kind of significant damage to his shoulder, the Jets may place a call to free agent quarterback Quincy Carter to work him out. Herm Edwards likes Carter, who played for New York in 2004, and the former Dallas starter has been working out in Georgia and waiting for another chance. With one offensive touchdown all season, don't be surprised if the impetuous Denny Green shakes up the Arizona staff, or at least some of the responsibilities, real soon. Green isn't above making coaching changes in the middle of a season, as he demonstrated last year. It's going to take big money to keep Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne around. An unrestricted free agent next spring, Wayne feels like he can go somewhere else and be a No. 1 wideout instead of being in the shadow of Marvin Harrison for a few more seasons. If it's true that tailback Travis Henry is going to be suspended for four games, you're going to start hearing more and more teams gripe about getting the drug files on players before they trade for them. Some teams seem to know the guys who are in the "program," but not everyone does because of the confidentiality guidelines.|
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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