Smith has Bears on defensive
Some advice for Wayne Huizenga: Look at what Lovie Smith is doing in Chicago and hire a defensive-minded coach.
Early word from South Florida is that Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga prefers his new head coach be one of those high-falutin' offensive-mined guys. Which figures, since ol' Wayne-o suggested this summer that A.J. Feeley could represent the second coming of Dan Marino, and now he needs a guy adept at drawing a bunch of exotic O's up on the grease board if the scatter-armed quarterback is even to resemble Broadway star Rita Moreno.
It was hardly a victory that will salvage a season already in the drink but, for the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Jake Delhomme, the win at San Francisco on Sunday afternoon had to make for a sweet cross-country red-eye home. The defending NFC champions have been beset by all manners of plague in 2004, from injuries to ineptitude, but largely have played hard every week out. Delhomme completed 19 of 34 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, all of them to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, and no interceptions for a change in the 37-27 comeback. He rallied the Panthers to 34 second-half points, displayed the manner of grit that catapulted him into league consciousness in 2003, and regained at least a smidgeon of self-respect for himself and his teammates.
Comments on the weekend's games from two pro scouts, one from each division, and one former personnel director:
|Heard in the pressbox|
|Despite contentions that coach Butch Davis will not lose control over personnel decisions if he is back in 2005, the Cleveland Browns will make a strong run at New England vice president of personnel Scott Pioli in the spring, and will have to provide near-absolute clout in football matters to pry him out of his contract. ... Don't discount the rhetoric about Mike Shanahan and the Miami Dolphins vacancy. The source for an NFL Network report, linking the Denver coach to the Miami job, was probably Shanahan himself. He wanted the word out, the same way wanted it made clear that he was not a candidate for the University of Florida opening. If the Broncos go a sixth straight year without a playoff win, owner Pat Bowlen still probably wouldn't can Shanahan. But the coach might well fire himself. Then again, that could be sticky, since he still has time left on his contract, and Bowlen could play hardball, and demand compensation from the Dolphins if they tried to hire Shanahan. ... Seattle wide receiver Koren Robinson will formally appeal his pending four-game suspension on Tuesday. There is little chance he will prevail and, if the league acts quickly, he could be suspended by week's end for repeat violations of the NFL substance abuse policy. ... Carolina tailback Stephen Davis, shut down for the rest of the season when he was placed on injured reserve Saturday, is now considering the controversial and mixed-results "microfracture" surgery for his damaged right knee. It might be a last-gasp effort to salvage his career. Davis has plenty of cartilage erosion in the knee and he's hoping noted orthopedist Dr. Williams Andrews can help him. ... Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who thrives on creating controversy, is convinced he will be gone from the team in 2005, a victim of his lofty salary cap number. Vanderjagt ought to stop worrying about stuff like that, and about the fact the Colts keep signing guys to handle kickoffs, and concentrate on field goals. He missed a 39-yarder, usually a chip shot for him, on Sunday. ... Even with the loss on Sunday, the Bucs still like Brian Griese, and will try to keep him around for next year. He can be the starter and, if he gets beat out by (Chris) Simms, well, you've got an experienced backup. There's no doubt that Brad Johnson is out of there. ... One plus for Minnesota the last few weeks, if there is such a thing, is that Daunte Culpepper might be developing some faith in wide receiver Nate Burleson, who had 11 catches for 141 yards on Sunday. Culpepper views Randy Moss as a security blanket and needs to get over that. . . . Cincy cornerback Tory James has blossomed pretty nicely at age 31. Marvin Lewis gave him a lot of responsibility last season, when they signed him as a free agent, and he responded. He's got six pickoffs this season and 10 overall in 25 games with the Bengals. In fact, both he and partner Deltha O'Neal are pretty nice reclamation projects. ... The Redskins will be fined for their blatant circumvention of practice squad rules. Washington has practiced with an extra guy several times this year, including last week.|
Since 2000, there have been 19 rookie head coaches in the NFL, and a dozen of them were sideline bosses whose primary expertise was on the defensive side of the football. Among them are Jim Mora in Atlanta, whose team all but secured a playoff berth on Sunday, and it's only mid-November. John Fox, who took the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003, in just his second season. Herman Edwards, who has the New York Jets on pace for a third playoff berth in his first four campaigns. Marvin Lewis, who in his debut 2003 campaign, shepherded the moribund Cincinnati Bengals to a .500 record. And Jack Del Rio, whose Jacksonville team is definitely choppin' wood this year, minus the oak stump and ax.
Which brings us, in a convoluted fashion, to Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears. Lovie Smith, you say? Yep, Lovie Smith, we say. He and his team won a third consecutive outing Sunday and, at 4-5, now trail the Packers and Vikings in the suddenly compressed NFC North by only one game. It certainly was fitting that the Bears' defense provided the winning points, with a safety, because the much-overlooked unit has clearly made this bunch competitive.
How else to explain three wins with Craig Krenzel, for gosh sakes, at quarterback? The rookie has completed all of 31 passes in his three victories, been sacked an amazing 14 times, and has registered a passer rating of 53.0. That includes an anemic 19.3 rating in Sunday's overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans. Chicago has scored seven touchdowns in The Krenzel Era, but only four of them were by the offense. During the winning streak, the Bears offense has averaged 220.3 yards, or basically a good quarter for the Indianapolis Colts.
Uh, yeah, the same Colts who travel to Soldier Field next weekend. Luckily for Da Bears, da defense has permitted a manageable 270.0 yards during the winning skein. Smith has made it work by starting a pair of rookie tackles for most of the season. He lost free safety Mike Brown, the unit's leader, for the year. Every one of his cornerbacks have been nicked at some point. Brian Urlacher, whom Smith seemed to think was kind of overrated anyway, began the year with a strained hamstring and really has not been 100 percent healthy yet.
But the Bears have unearthed good, young linebackers such as Lance Briggs and Green Bay reject Hunter Hillenmeyer. The secondary has been steadfastly aggressive. Right end Alex Brown has become a terror. Left end Adewale Ogunleye has started to re-establish himself as a pass-rush threat. And of Chicago's five losses, three have been by five points or fewer, with an average losing margin of only 6.8 points.
Think of where Smith might have this team if starting quarterback Rex Grossman hadn't gone down with a season-ending knee injury, or if there had been a backup more adequate than Jonathan Quinn on the roster, huh? Still, things are going pretty dovey for Lovie, who won't win coach of the year honors, but clearly has demonstrated his resourcefulness and his viability as a guy who was worthy of the job. Wherever the next Lovie Smith is, Wayne Huizenga, you could do worse than to identify him.
Sitting in the luxurious Furman University dormitory suite of Rich McKay at camp this summer (so, OK, we fudged a little on the luxurious part), the Atlanta Falcons general manager spoke with us at length of how important it was for the team to land a playmaker at the "under' tackle spot. So remember now, McKay knows a thing or two about "under" tackles, having employed Warren Sapp at the position during their years together with the Tampa Bay Bucs franchise.
In the mind of Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and former head coach Tony Dungy -- and that means, in the mind of Rich McKay, too, we're guessing -- you've got to have three positions which feature superior performers. The weak-side linebacker. Strong safety. And, yep, "under" tackle, an interior force who aligns in the gap, who can penetrate, who gets into the backfield and wreaks all sorts of havoc and disruption.
From our notes, and McKay's quotes of this summer: "The nose tackle-type guys, the guys who just plug the middle, you can find them. But 'under' tackles, those are hard to come by, and it's tough to play without them." Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy. Atlanta found a superior "under' tackle this spring, when it added former Oakland Raiders standout Rod Coleman as an unrestricted free agent.
And now, nine games into the year, the Falcons know precisely what it means to play with Coleman and to play without him in the lineup. Coleman returned on Sunday, in the Falcons' victory over Tampa Bay, after missing three games with shoulder and knee injuries he sustained in the Oct. 16 one-vehicle accident. And we're thinking it wasn't just coincidence that, with Coleman on the field again, Atlanta registered a season-high seven sacks. Despite being triple-teamed at times, Coleman had two sacks, giving him six in six appearances this year.
Left end Patrick Kerney, who had seven sacks in his first four games but had gone four games without a sack (including all three contests in which Coleman was sidelined), got back in the sack column again.
Want some number-crunching? In the six games Coleman played, the Falcons have allowed an average of 276.5 yards and 13.3 points, totaled 25 sacks and registered 12 takeaways. Four times in those games, the defense held opponents to less than 300 yards, and three times the Falcons unit permitted fewer than 250 yards. Atlanta didn't permit more than 20 points in any of those contests.
In the three games Coleman missed, the defense surrendered an average of 475 yards and 34.7 points, recorded one measly sack and five takeaways. Opponents scored 20 or more points in all three of those outings and that included 84 points the past two weeks.
Not that we didn't buy into Rich McKay's sermon this summer about the significance of the "under' tackle spot. But if anyone needed graphic evidence -- and McKay, by trade, is an attorney -- it was more than sufficiently provided with Coleman as Exhibit A.
Tell the truth now. Even after Minnesota tailback Moe Williams scored on a 17-yard pass, much of it incredible individual effort, to tie the score at 31-31 against Green Bay Packers with 1:20 remaining at Lambeau Field on Sunday, you still knew the Vikings were going down again, didn't you?
Even after Packers return man Robert Ferguson fumbled the ensuing kickoff into a sea of Minnesota coverage players, all of them around the ball, you knew some unknown Green Bay bench jockey (in this case, Ben Steele, a onetime practice squad guy) was going to burrow to the bottom of the pile and pry the thing lose, right?
And why, folks, did you know these things?
Because, alas, it's Death Gurgle Time for the Vikings again, that's how. Give the Vikings and coach Mike Tice credit for summoning up the will to storm back with two late-game touchdowns and overcome a 14-point hole in the closing minutes. But in the NFL, you've got to close out wins, and when the Vikes get to the most critical part of the season, they simply can't perform that crucial function.
That's three straight losses for Minnesota, the last two of them with Randy Moss standing on the sideline with his balky hamstring, wishing he could help. Think this streak doesn't conjure up visions of the 2003 collapse, in which Minnesota opened 6-0 then missed the playoffs by losing seven of its last 10, for the Vikings player who suffered that ignominy?
Yeah, they may say last season doesn't impact on this year, but it's got to be stuck pretty good in their craniums. Remember the 1980s movie "The China Syndrome," the flick starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, and in which a nuclear reactor suffers a catastrophic event? It was so named because, in fission-talk, if a reactor fails and the core rods are exposed, the theory is that the unit will melt down into the Earth. You know, all the way to China, on the other side.
Well, the Vikings better get straightened out real soon, or better get their passports handy. A few more defeats and the Vikings are going to be eating with chop-sticks, in some Beijing rice house, pretty darned soon.
The good news for the Vikings is that they could have some travel companions in the Orient if the Seattle Seahawks don't get back to the way they played in the first three weeks of the season. The Seahawks lost for the fourth time in six weeks, and the second time to the St. Louis Rams, as their own meltdown continued on Sunday.
In the first defeat, St. Louis scored 17 points in 5½ minutes to overcome a huge deficit and force overtime. On Sunday, the Rams scored 17 points in the opening 17&189; minutes, jumping out to a big advantage they did not relinquish.
Even through their first couple defeats, we felt the Seahawks were still a solid club, the best in the division. But, boy, has our perspective changed. Even some Seattle coaches concede this is a flawed team, and who are we to argue?
Seattle fans fret that the team could lose Matt Hasselbeck in free agency after the season but, given his recent stretch, how bad can that really be? Hot as a pistol in the first three games, Hasselbeck has now had three outings in which he has thrown 20-plus incompletions. On Sunday, he was 15 for 36 for 172 yards and zero touchdown passes. And that's against a St. Louis defense that has been surrendering both yards and points in scads.
Tailback Shaun Alexander, another pending free agent and a player on whom the Seahawks coaches aren't universally sold, rushed for 176 yards. No matter, though, since neither he nor any of his teammates can move the ball in the red zone. Five trips inside the St. Louis 20-yard line, four Josh Brown field goals, and that isn't going to cut it.
Rams coach Mike "The Mastermind" Martz opened the game with 13 straight pass plays, the Seahawks were knocked back on their heels (perhaps by the sheer predictability of that gambit), and Seattle never recovered. Seattle has a relatively easy schedule coming up and, even with two losses to the Rams, that might provide coach Mike Holmgren and his team a slight edge. But the Seahawks have become every bit as roller coaster a bunch as their NFC West counterparts, every bit as inconsistent as the Rams, and that's hardly what you aspire to be.
Winning their first outing minus injured starter Byron Leftwich, even if it took overtime to accomplish it, was a nice accomplishment for the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that kept them tied for first in the AFC South.
Winning his first start as the replacement was pretty big, too, for quarterback David Garrard.
A couple of old hands accustomed to big games, wide receiver Jimmy Smith (seven catches, 109 yards, the game-winning 36-yard grab in overtime) and tailback Fred Taylor (23 carries for 144 yards), provided great support for Garrard.
If you can, watch Garrard next week, and then take a mental inventory of the quarterback-needy franchises for which he could likely start in 2005. One of them, Detroit, got a first-hand look at Garrard on Sunday. Yeah, we said Detroit, where Joey Harrington (an abysmal 11-for-33 performance) has now sunk below inconsistent. Detroit brass has surrounded Harrington with enough talent that he is running out of excuses, as the Lions run out of time and patience.
When we saw Garrard in training camp last summer, it was obvious he had progressed immensely, had worked through many of the deficiencies of his rookie season. The good news for some team is that Garrard, diagnosed with Crohn's disease this past summer, continues to blossom and he's going to become someone's solid starter. He is over his old, rookie-year habit of abandoning the pocket too soon, displays nice awareness, doesn't try to force the action and is simply a very poised young man. So, on Sunday, both he and the Jaguars were big winners.
Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher is now 0-3 lifetime versus the Bears, the franchise with which he played five seasons (1981-85) as a defensive back. ... In its six losses, Kansas City has averaged an amazing 378.2 yards of offense. That's about 20 yards more than winning teams have averaged on offense through the first 10 weeks of the season. Such largesse helps explain a loss like Sunday's in which the Chiefs had a 300-yard passer, a tailback who ran for nearly 200 yards and a 100-yard receiver. ... The Bears' victory on Sunday marked just the second time a team had won in overtime on a safety. ... Indianapolis' win on Sunday pushed the Colts to 82-81 at home since the club moved from Baltimore in 1984. It is the first time the Colts have been over .500 at the RCA Dome (nee Hoosier Dome). ... Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun had to handle the placement chores Sunday after kicker John Kasay sustained a calf injury. ... Atlanta used quarterback Michael Vick more in the shotgun Sunday than at any time during the season, it seemed, and the gambit worked well. Vick looked fairly comfortable and made good reads. Meanwhile, one has to wonder the last time a team made the playoffs without a wide receiver who had 50 catches. The Falcons are headed that way. ... Buffalo rookie quarterback J.P. Losman, the latter of the Bills' two first-rounders, got his regular-season debut on Sunday evening. With the Bills all but eliminated from the playoffs, and Drew Bledsoe no lock to be back in 2005, Losman could get a few starts in the second half of the season, now that he has rehabilitated from a broken leg. ... In the Friday "Tip Sheet," we made the best line matchup of the week the battle between New York Giants left offensive tackle Luke Petitgout and Arizona Cardinals right defensive end Bertrand Berry. The winner in a landslide, Berry, who had four sacks. Petitgout is clearly hurting and might need some time off. In the last two weeks, opposition right ends have recorded eight sacks against the Giants. In the last four games now, Kurt Warner has been sacked an incredible 24 times. The only plus on Sunday was that Warner didn't fumble or turn the ball over. ... Cornerback Mike McKenzie, acquired from Green Bay via trade, had his first interception Sunday for the New Orleans Saints. ... Pressed into service as a punter, after a shoulder injury to Dave Zastudil, backup quarterback Kordell Stewart added another element to his "Slash" lineage. He punted five times for an average of 35.4 yards gross and 31.2 yards net, with two kicks inside the 20-yard line. ... Pittsburgh tailback Jerome Bettis had two more touchdown runs on Sunday, giving him 10 for the season, and earning him a $100,000 incentive. His 10 touchdown runs have totaled just 19 yards and his five-yarder on Sunday was his longest of the season. Five scores have come from one yard.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.