Nearly every week in the NFL the old lesson, never underestimate the importance of special teams, is hammered home to us. This weekend, though, the professor brought out a sledge to again bludgeon his case into our consciousness.
We'll start in the RCA Dome, where Jacksonville rookie kicker Josh Scobee barely squeaked a 53-yard field goal over the bar with 38 seconds remaining to provide the Jaguars with their fifth last-minute victory of the season. Interesting guy, Scobee, a fifth-round draft pick from Louisiana Tech who had to stave off the challenges of two other candidates in training camp. Anyone who watched the NFL Network-produced training camp series on the Jaguars might recall the cameras catching special-teams coordinator Pete Rodriguez suggesting to head coach Jack Del Rio that the rookie, despite early struggles, could become a big-time kicker in the league. When you are as good a special-teams coach as is Rodriguez, you can probably afford to put your reputation on the line a bit for a guy, and be cut a tad more slack.
Scobee certainly vindicated Rodriguez's faith in him Sunday, hitting all four field-goal tries and scoring nearly half his team's points in the critical 27-24 victory over the Colts. For the year, Scobee has now converted nine of 11 field-goal tries, and while Rodriguez doesn't need any more justification for his reputation as one of the NFL's premier kicking-game coaches, he's looking pretty good right now. Not to be overlooked in the Jags' big win was that Rodriguez's kickoff coverage unit limited the Colts to an average return of just 13.2 yards.
The other game-winning field goal came in Cleveland, where Philadelphia standout kicker David Akers hit a 50-yard boot nearly 10 minutes into overtime to keep the Eagles undefeated. The second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, Akers is a long-distance stud. But against the whipping winds of Lake Erie, he apprised Eagles coaches that 50 yards was about his limit on Sunday, and he was right, as the ball eked over the crossbar.
Their long kicks aside, neither Scobee nor Akers could top the bigfoot performance on Sunday of Arizona kicker Neil Rackers, who was released by the Bengals last season. Rackers tied a league record by hitting three field goals of 50 yards or more -- from 55, 55 and then 50 yards -- in the Cardinals' victory over the slumping Seattle Seahawks. The five-year pro now has five field goals of 50 yards or longer for 2004, and the NFL record is eight in a season.
Rackers wasn't the only element of the Arizona kicking game holding up his end of the deal. Cardinals punter Scott Player punted six times for a gross average of 41.7 yards and a 40.0-yard net average. He knocked three punts inside the Seattle 20-yard line (the 11, 7 and 14), all in the fourth quarter, when the Seahawks were trying to mount a comeback. Want another punter who very quietly had a big day? Try Josh Miller of New England, who punted only three times as the Pats won for the 21st time in a row, but who pooched all three kicks inside the New York Jets' 20-yard line.
Finally, in a game New Orleans probably needed to win to keep coach Jim Haslett out of the unemployment line, rookie linebacker Colby Bockwoldt scooped up a fumble by Oakland kickoff return man Carlos Francis, and bolted 6 yards for a touchdown that nudged the Saints into a comfortable lead. Oh, yeah, since we're rooting for him to someday retire as the leading scorer in NFL history, this note: Morten Andersen scored 8 points for Minnesota on Sunday and career leader Gary Anderson, the guy he seems to be inexorably attempting to catch (but who keeps finding a way to come out of retirement every season), scored 3 points for the Tennessee Titans.
The Cardinal way
Another mention of the mighty Arizona Cardinals among the five observations? Abso-tively. Despite their meltdown at San Francisco two weeks ago, the Cardinals came back strong following their bye, and trounced the suddenly floundering Seahawks.
So why is that such a big deal? Even with a 2-4 record and likely to post a losing record for the sixth consecutive season, we still think first-year coach Denny Green has his young team pointed the right way. And, maybe, because we like it when Green gets an opportunity to go nyah, nyah, nyah to his legion of critics, like those who chastised him for opting to go with the inexperienced Josh McCown as his quarterback, rather than importing a free-agent retread over the summer. In the last four games, McCown has posted a respectable quarterback rating of 89.2, completed 64 percent of his passes and thrown twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions. Mind-blowing numbers? Not quite, but more than enough to suggest for now that Green might have unearthed another potential nugget at the game's toughest position. One suggestion, though, Josh: Keep fumbling the ball and you're going to use up all the good will you've accumulated with the boss.
And then there was the summer announcement by Green that the venerable Emmitt Smith would be the Cards' starting tailback. All right, we confess that even we gasped at that one. But the gambit is paying off pretty well through six games. Smith rushed for 106 yards on Sunday, breaking Walter Payton's record, with 78 100-yard games. It represented Smith's second game of 100 yards in the last three contests. In 2003, Smith had only two games in which he rushed for more than 50 yards, and a season high of just 64 yards. He's got four games with more than 50 yards this season and has been over 64 yards on three occasions. Don't look now, but through six games, Ol' Man Emmitt is on pace for 1,224 yards. That would be his first 1,000-yard season since 2001 and his best production since 2001.
Our final Denny Green in-your-face moment (and, yeah, we know that by next week someone will probably be shoving all of this back at us) is his decision to hire the relatively unknown Clancy Pendergast as his defensive coordinator. The Cards' defense evaporated in the loss at San Francisco two weeks ago, but bounced back pretty nicely on Sunday, snagging four interceptions. The Cards' defense leads the NFL with 18 takeaways and that is only five shy of the unit's total for the entire 2003 campaign.
OK, we dismissed their meltdown loss to St. Louis a couple weeks ago as just a fluke. Last week's defeat at New England? Hey, everyone loses to the Pats, right? Even after that two-game slide, we were defending the Seahawks, and contending (even twice a week on Seattle radio) that Mike Holmgren's team would still win the NFC West. Oops. Even though we just finished lionizing the Cardinals in the previous item, and claiming that Denny Green knows more about personnel than most people think, there is absolutely no excuse for the egg the Seahawks laid on Sunday afternoon. The only saving grace for Seattle was that St. Louis, which still holds onto its unofficial title as the league's most schizoid team, got whipped by the winless Miami Dolphins, for cripe's sake.
But this slide in Seattle has reached the perilous stage now. Not even the great Jerry Rice (one reception, 10 yards), having dragged the No. 80 uniform jersey of Steve Largent out of mothballs (wanna bet on what happens if some poor schmuck in San Francisco ever asks for the similar favor of Rice), could make a difference. Hey, maybe Holmgren ought to consider phoning Joe Montana, huh? Actually, the way Matt Hasselbeck performed on Sunday, that might not be a bad idea.
There might be some argument for an undermanned Seattle defense, which is playing without end Grant Wistrom and linebacker Anthony Simmons. But for the Seattle offense to have sputtered so miserably is hard to fathom. Makes one wonder what will befall the unit when wideout Koren Robinson is officially suspended for four games.
Holmgren said it best in the aftermath of another defeat: His team has to decide, and pretty quickly, whether it is the bunch that won its first three games, or the motley crew that lost the last three. Looking ahead, the schedule isn't exactly a killer, although the Nov. 14 game at St. Louis figures to be critical. For now, it doesn't really matter who the opponent is on the dance card. The Seahawks need a win. Like now.
Sigh of relief
Yes, a little Pittsburgh provincialism here, folks: Good to see two good guys, both from Western P-A as we say back in The 'Burgh, get much-needed victories on Sunday. Jim Haslett of the Saints, despite denials from New Orleans officials, probably needed a win to save his job. And we can pretty much assure you that Dave Wannstedt of the Dolphins needed a win to salvage his sanity.
Be honest, now, you could almost see the Miami win coming from, oh, a mile away, couldn't you? The ultimate "trap" game, and coming versus an opponent, the Rams, who could star in a remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Talking to personnel guys around the league, the suspicion was that the Miami defense would play a game where it kept things close, and where the offense actually came up with a highlight or two. That was, pretty much, the formula. The defense held Marc Bulger and the Rams to two conversions on third-down attempts, cornerback Patrick Surtain continued to play well, and bellwethers Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor, those two rascal brothers-in-law, combined for 15 tackles and two sacks.
Haslett had things a bit more difficult -- it isn't often the Saints win when Deuce McAllister rushes for just 42 yards -- but the Raiders helped out with some sloppy play. Hey, we're not going to fall into the trap again of climbing on the New Orleans bandwagon. But think about this: The Saints have a bye next weekend. Atlanta, which got run over by Kansas City on Sunday, travels to Denver to face another strong infantry-unit offense. So by this time next week, the Falcons could be 5-3 and the Saints, at 3-4, only one game behind in the loss column. And the Saints and Falcons still face each other twice.
Before we get off the subject of good-guy coaches from our old stomping grounds, a shout out to Raiders defensive line coach Sam Clancy, who was back on the sideline Sunday just three days after being carted from the practice field with an irregular heartbeat.
We'll show some age here: Many, many years ago, when yours truly could still run, we earned some extra dough as a basketball referee. And Big Sam was the star of the junior high school team at Fifth Avenue. We zebra-ed the championship game -- solo, we might add, when the other referee was a no-show -- and Clancy helped keep things calm in a pretty heated environment. Didn't hurt, either, that Clancy, who didn't play college football but was the career-leading rebounder when he left the University of Pittsburgh, scored more than 20 and yanked down 20-some boards in that game. It's a lot easier blowing the whistle (or sometimes not blowing it) in a rout. And Big Sam made sure that City League junior high championship game was mercifully (for me) lopsided.
Prime Time return
Never underestimate special teams, right, as we earlier noted? Well, folks, don't ever, as we learned while covering Deion Sanders both up-close and from afar, think Prime Time is past prime.
When the Baltimore Ravens signed Sanders, we were somewhat dubious, but we have seen him rise to the occasion way too many times to disregard the move. At age 37, is Sanders the player he was at, say, 27? Who is? But when the man puts his mind to something, history has demonstrated we should not dismiss the possibility he will come through big-time.
We were on hand the first time Sanders returned to the Georgia Dome, after leaving the Falcons and signing with the 49ers, and you just knew he would do something huge. And he did, intercepting a pass, toting it nearly 90 yards up the sideline, "vogue-ing" past the Falcons' bench, hand behind his head in his trademark pose, as he sprinted for the score.
Two interceptions on Sunday and yet another return for a touchdown. For a "nickel" guy, Sanders is worth a million. Always has been. Maybe always will be.
Through the first 101 games of the season, there have been just five overtimes. At the current rate, there would be only 13 overtime contests in 2004, the fewest since there were 13 in 2000. ... Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard, in his first season as a starter, went the first four games without an interception. But his pickoff on Sunday, against Jeff Garcia of Cleveland, gives him three in the last two outings. ... How much influence did the four wide receivers traded last week have on their new teams over the weekend? Well, Keenan McCardell, who had five catches for 65 yards with San Diego, definitely played a major role in the Chargers' victory at Carolina. The other three -- Rice, Antonio Bryant and Quincy Morgan -- combined for seven catches and 112 yards and all three were on losing teams. ... Last week, one of our anonymous scouts noted he could "puke" every time he sees Minnesota rookie tailback Mewelde Moore, because he wanted to draft him and his coaching staff didn't like the former Tulane star. Well, you can bet that scout wanted to upchuck again Sunday, as Moore ran for 138 yards and had 168 yards total from scrimmage. In his three starts, Moore has 537 combined rushing and receiving yards and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Not bad for a kid who couldn't get under 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. ... Buffalo has scored just six touchdowns this season, none of them on the ground. Look for tailback Travis Henry to start squawking about the increased playing time that Willis McGahee has been getting. ... As bad as starter Drew Bledsoe has been for the Bills, including the four interceptions he threw on Sunday, the Bills have no alternative but to keep putting him out there. First-round pick J.P. Losman, still recovering from a broken leg, is a few weeks away from being able to play. ... Nice game by Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston on Sunday, with six catches for 100 yards. Philly coaches weren't ready to move Freddie Mitchell ahead of Pinkston and into the starting lineup, because they like him more in the slot. But there were concerns about Pinkston's lack of production and he needed a solid outing. ... Kansas City backup tailback Derrick Blaylock entered Sunday's game against Atlanta with 48 rushes for 226 yards and two touchdowns in his career. He ran for 90 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries. So of his career yardage, nearly 30 percent came in Sunday's game. ... The Atlanta wide receiver corps has combined for just 36 catches and 515 yards in seven games. ... Teams are now 7-9 coming off bye weeks.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.