Maybe 30 seconds after Chad Pennington tossed his fifth interception late Saturday night, the telephone rang in my St. Louis hotel room, the voice of my lovely wife on the other end. Most times Susan Jane Detweiler Pasquarelli won't bother me on the road, particularly after 10 p.m., because we have both been around long enough and through sufficient lifetime travails to know that good news rarely arrives in late-night phone calls.
Jamal Lewis, Ravens RB
Even on a weekend of big performances, how could the game ball go to anyone but Baltimore Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis, who apparently would rush for 4,000 yards if he could just face the Cleveland Browns defense every week. Despite not even touching the ball for the final dozen minutes of the game, Lewis rang up 205 yards on just 22 carries in a 35-0 victory that provided the Ravens a big leg up in the race for the AFC North title. The performance left Lewis just 154 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season record for rushing yards. What's more, it gave Lewis 500 yards in two contests (and just 52 carries) against the Browns' helpless and hapless unit. In two victories over Cleveland, he had runs of 45, 48, 63, 72 and 82 yards.
Comments elicited from a pair of NFC scouts:
"Since he's such a great guy and ambassador for the game, it's great to see (Pittsburgh tailback Jerome) Bettis have some really good games down the stretch. But if you're the Steelers, you can't let yourself get too tempted by those couple good outings and start thinking about bringing him back (in 2004). Good guy, like I said, but one who has been in decline the last few years. The Steelers brass can't afford to get too sentimental in making the call on Bettis' future."
"While I'm on (the subject of) the Steelers, a guy I hadn't seen in a while, and who is playing lights-out, is (linebacker) James Farrior. He's a lot better than I remembered, had a bunch of tackles on Sunday (13 according to the game book), and makes a lot of plays."
"Let's forget the stuff Matt Millen said last week to Johnnie Morton, OK? That (stuff) aside even, how does this guy keep his job, given what he's done in three years. Did you see that team on Sunday? Pitiful, absolutely pitiful, with barely over 100 yards (108 to be exact) in total offense. Something like eight first downs. Nine wins in three years. How the owners can keep him around is baffling. Then again, how he got the job in the first place, given that he had no experience, makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking."
"Just because (Tom) Coughlin is getting the first interview with the Giants (on Monday), don't read too much into that. He's definitely on New York's 'short list,' but isn't as big a favorite as some people think. One of the main reasons he's getting the first audition is because he's free to interview right now. This way, the Giants can get an early read on him. But the guy they really like, from what I hear, is (Patriots defensive coordinator) Romeo Crennel. And I'm also hearing (general manager Ernie) Accorsi will stick around through the '05 season."
Herm Edwards told his players last week that he definitely will be back in 2004. And look for (the Jets) brass to give him a two-year contract extension. He's not going anywhere."
"Hard to say what has motivated (Patriots linebacker/defensive end) Willie McGinest over the last month, but the guy is playing great. It's like a couple years ago, when he hit his stride in the final month, and it carried over right through their Super Bowl win."
"Interesting tidbit that (Chris) Mortensen reported, about (Miami owner) Wayne Huizenga having some interest in Steve Spurrier. Good stuff. Of course, you know the Dolphins will fall all over themselves denying it. And (Dan) Snyder will claim he wants Spurrier back again in 2004. But I guarantee you, if Huizenga makes the phone call, Snyder will listen."
"One young defensive end who doesn't get a lot of credit, but whose motor I love, is Charles Grant (of New Orleans). He's got some cheap-shot in him but the guy plays hard and he doesn't take any snaps off."
"All of us guys who were scared off (Lions linebacker) Boss Bailey, because he had knee problems and wasn't a big hitter, should be forced to watch a tape from his Sunday game. He's developed into a nice player. Me and a lot of other guys will be kicking ourselves for not drafting him."
"I saw where you claimed that (Cleveland quarterback) Tim Couch might consider a contract restructuring to stay with the team next year. He might be lucky if they even want him back. He was really bad Sunday and, while he's a good kid, there is something missing there."
Heard in the pressbox
Everyone keeps trying to connect Jim Fassel to the Arizona job, assuming the Cardinals fire Dave McGinnis, which is a given. But don't discount the Raiders making a play for Fassel as well. And deposed University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, who has always wanted to be in the NFL, is going to chase the Raiders job, too. Neuheisel has been telling friends he thinks he can get a head coaching job in the league somewhere. ... Some of the Cleveland officials wouldn't mind too much if the league extends out the suspension of tailback William Green through the '04 season. That would help the club with its ponderous salary cap situation and the Browns feel they have enough viable backs to get by. That includes rookie Lee Suggs, the fourth-round pick who missed much of the season on the physically unable to perform list, but who rushed for 68 yards in a pretty nice Sunday outing. ... Some people who are interested in hiring Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator (like the New York Jets) think he has an "out" clause in his deal with the Tampa Bay Bucs, who have been able to keep him in past years when it looked like the highly-regarded defensive line coach was prepared to exit. ... Heisman Trophy winner Jason White did a good thing going back to Oklahoma for another season of eligibility. At best, he's a fourth-round pick, and he might not even be that. What he might be, down the road, is a pretty decent coaching candidate at the college level. ... Even with all the talk about (St. Louis defensive coordinator) Lovie Smith, the man atop the Atlanta Falcons wish list remains LSU coach Nick Saban.
But this time my wife, one of the most avid and knowledgeable NFL fans I know, just couldn't resist. "It just hit me, watching the end of this (Jets-Patriots) game," she said, "who your buddy reminds me of standing there on the sideline. The Unabomber. I mean, look at him, with the hood pulled up and everything. C'mon, honest, doesn't he look like the Unabomber? At least a little bit?"
OK, for clarification's sake, the "buddy" to whom she made reference, is New England coach Bill Belichick. She knows full well that Belichick is one of my favorite coaches, a guy I have admired a long time, a man that I consider a friend. Oh, yeah, and a genius as well. Anyway, before the Belichick family begins rifling off angry e-mails and New England fans launch verbal salvos with funny accents, understand that my wife's reference to the Unabomber was strictly based on the garb the Pats coach wore Saturday night. Nothing insensitive or politically incorrect was intended.
Fact is, the way he looked Saturday is the way that the unassuming Belichick usually dresses, especially in inclement weather. How he gets away without wearing the standard-issue coaching getups every one of his colleagues has on these days, well, that's an issue between Belichick and commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Or the league's fashion police. But the brainy Belichick has always been more about substance than style. About the only thing Belichick has in common with Theodore Kaczynski, besides the hooded sweatshirt, is that his defensive game plans might challenge the Unabomber's manifesto in terms of total volume.
Which, in somewhat convoluted manner, brings us to the point of this opening observation. In the "Year of the Coach," a season in which there is no lack of viable candidates for coach of the year honors, Belichick ought to get the award. There is more than sufficient reason to argue for any number of candidates and, until Sunday, my choice was between Belichick and Philadelphia's Andy Reid. Both survived a hideous string of injuries, and dubious starts to the season, and the two could well match wits in the Super Bowl.
You all know the other guys who have done superb jobs: Bill Parcells in Dallas, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Kansas City's Dick Vermeil, Carolina's John Fox and Mike Martz of St. Louis. All of them eminently deserving. But no club has a better record right now than the Patriots, and no other coach was forced to use 42 different starters, the most by a franchise since the 1970 merger.
Once regarded as just a defensive geek, a guy who drew up the best X's in the business, Belichick has grown into the consummate head coach. This year, in our humble estimation, he was the league's best coach as well. Belichick likely will never be the picture of sartorial splendor, but his game plans have now undressed opponents for 11 straight weeks, after a shaky 2-2 start.
And while we are at it, a plug, too, for Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli as a candidate for NFL executive of the year consideration. There is a perception in some quarters that Pioli only does what Belichick tells him to do. That perception is palpably unfair. Pioli has learned the trade well -- it doesn't hurt that Parcells is his father-in-law -- and he and Belichick rarely differ on their evaluations of a player, either in the draft or free agency. Somebody has to do the legwork for Belichick and Pioli is a pretty good leg man.
If you focused on the Kansas City run defense Saturday afternoon in a 45-20 loss to the Vikings, well, it was enough to make a grown man cry, wasn't it? And by Sunday morning, when Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil clicked on the videotape machine to scrutinize carnage of another shoddy performance by his front seven, odds are that there was, indeed, a certain grown man crying as he examined the grotesque celluloid evidence. "Weepin' Dick" might have needed a bed sheet, in fact, to handle the tears. Yep, we've beat this dead horse of a Chiefs run defense plenty the past few weeks. There is no denying that. But then again, its opponents have hammered away at the Kansas City defensive front like it's a cold and lifeless carcass, and it is difficult to ignore what has transpired the past six weeks.
The Chiefs, who began the season 9-0 and were supposed to have visions of sugar plums and an undefeated year dancing in their collective cranium by now, are just a .500 team in their last six outings. The reasons for the demise might be many but, if the Chiefs were in court, the defense would be held most culpable for the heinous crimes committed since mid-November. The unit has surrendered an average of 192.5 rushing yards in the last six games, roughly 70 yards more on average than in the first nine contests of the year, and allowed 200 yards or more on the ground in all three defeats. In the losses, the defense allowed Rudi Johnson (Cincinnati) 165 yards, Clinton Portis (Denver) 218 yards and five touchdowns, and rookie Onterrio Smith (Minnesota) 146 yards.
Chris Mortensen of ESPN suggested Saturday that Vermeil might be wearing down again physically and emotionally, and that wife Carole might nudge him toward retirement for the third time, and nobody could blame the Chiefs coach if he packed up and left now after having analyzed his run defense. Odds are that general manager Carl Peterson, who has a two-year extension offer on the table for Vermeil, will convince his old buddy to return. Let's hope, given the contributions Vermeil has made to the league, that's the case. But if you're Vermeil, you'd better extract a promise to spend even more money on getting some space-eaters for the front four. The Chiefs have plenty of athletes in the front half of their defense but not enough slobberknockers.
In addition to the run game woes, Kansas City hasn't been able to force the action over the last six weeks, with the defense netting just six takeaways and eight sacks. The result: The Chiefs have given up an average of 35.8 points, had 45 points hung on 'em two times, and held just one opponent under 24 points in the ongoing plummet. In the first nine games, Kansas City had 24 sacks, 29 takeaways and surrendered an average of 16.7 points. Truth be told, though, the Chiefs were having problems stopping the run even when unbeaten, but that pristine 9-0 record and all the inherent attention which accompanied it helped camouflage some deficiencies. In 15 games now, the Chiefs have held opponents under 100 rushing yards just three times. There have been nine individual 100-yard rushing performances against the Chiefs, and five of those were for 135 yards or more.
Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has been on shaky ground before and always managed to survive. But for him to be back in 2004, even if Vermeil returns on a new deal, the Chiefs are going to have to survive for a round or two in the playoffs. And unless Vermeil and Robinson discover some kind of magic formula for stuffing the run, and quickly, the Chiefs might not get beyond their opening postseason date. It would be disastrous, no getting around it, for Kansas City to suffer an early out in the playoffs. But the defense is on a slippery slope and opposition running backs just keep running downhill on the Chiefs front seven.
More defensive problems
Now that we've benumbed you with another lecture on the importance of stopping the run, and playing stout defense in general in the playoffs, let's inject these couple more doses of reality: The Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts, two teams with plans on advancing deep into postseason play, aren't exactly riding hot defensive units into the old Super Bowl derby, are they?
With the Sunday night defeat to Denver, which played minus star running back Clinton Portis, the Indianapolis defense has coughed up an average of 24.7 points in its last 11 outings. The same unit that surrendered a total of just 47 points in the first four games of the year, has held only three opponents to fewer than 20 points since then, and five times in that stretch permitted 27-plus points. On Sunday night, the Colts allowed touchdown drives on four straight Denver possessions and the Broncos did not punt until midway through the third quarter. The Broncos netted 52 or more yards on seven of their 10 offensive series. Not good at all.
Just as troubling is the way in which the Philadelphia run defense continues to be ravaged. The Eagles have now surrendered 100 or more rushing yards in 11 straight contests, including 206 to San Francisco in the Sunday overtime loss, with 49ers tailback Kevan Barlow shredding their front seven for 154 yards. In the last nine games, the Eagles have allowed seven individual 100-yard rushers and that includes three performances of 154 yards or more.
Even when things were going poorly at the outset of the season, the Eagles got through the first four games allowing no team to rush for 100 yards. Part of the problem, of course, is injuries. And the defense lost another key performer on Sunday when strong-side linebacker Carlos Emmons, a solid and underrated two-way defender, went down for the year with a broken leg. Coordinator Jim Johnson has held the unit together with duct tape and baling wire but, at some point, things start to unravel at the seams. The tapestry that is the Philly run defense began to show stretch marks long ago and, as is the case with the Chiefs' front seven, a remedy had better be found pretty quickly.
49ers still battling
In the event you are one of the legion of skeptics who don't believe most teams still play hard even at the end of a season that hasn't turned out nearly as well as expected (and who could blame you if you saw the Detroit Lions' effort of Sunday afternoon), you ought to applaud the San Francisco 49ers for their overtime victory at Philadelphia.
There wasn't a whole lot more than pride on the line for a Niners team already eliminated from the playoffs. Yet every time San Francisco had a convenient excuse to just fold up the tents and go home, somebody would make a play to keep the 49ers alive. Kudos to coach Dennis Erickson and his club. And to safety Tony Parrish, one of the guys who really got shafted in the Pro Bowl balloting.
In case you missed it, Parrish had two interceptions, the one in overtime setting up Todd Peterson's game-winning field goal. He eliminated another Eagles score by knocking the ball through the end zone on a long completion in which he stripped the pigskin away. He missed a few tackles but made seven stops. Parrish now has nine interceptions for the season, 16 in the last two years, and certainly deserved an all-expenses paid trip to Honolulu. Maybe he played with a chip on his shoulder Sunday because of the Pro Bowl slight. Or maybe, like most of his teammates, he just went out and provided an honest day's effort when just pride was on the line.
If your name is John Carney, you probably won't feel too good when you awaken Monday morning, huh? Carney is a class act, one of the clutch kickers of this era, and a guy who had made all 35 of his previous extra point attempts this season until late in the New Orleans Saints' contest at Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon.
Then after one of the most unforgettable plays in league history -- the series of bizarre laterals that resulted in a 75-yard touchdown play to seemingly tie the Saints-Jaguars contest on the final snap of regulation -- you made it even more unforgettable by shoving the extra point wide right. There's a pretty good chance, John Carney, that of all the big kicks you've made in your excellent career, none will be replayed as many times as that botched extra point. About the only consolation, we guess, is that your name isn't Scott Norwood.
Remembering Irvin Favre
We don't usually take up this space with personal observations but, in this case, please indulge us. I first met Irvin Favre, a big bear of a man, in 1991. That was the year that the Atlanta Falcons invested a second-round draft choice in Mr. Favre's son, Brett Favre, and there has never been a better bargain. To get a three-time most valuable player in the second round? Give me a break.
A week or so after Brett was introduced to the Atlanta media, a photographer from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper which employed me at the time, accompanied me to Kiln, Miss., to do a feature on the Falcons' most engaging draft pick in years. That feature remains, to this day, one of the best pieces this hack of a reporter has ever produced. And it was good, in large part, because of the hospitality of Irvin Favre, his wife Bonita, and the rest of the family. We spent a couple of days in Kiln, which was light-years removed from anything this Yankee-bred reporter had ever seen before, and the Favre family welcomed us into their house as if we were kin.
We got a chuckle out of how the road sign on Irvin Favre Road misspelled the family's last name. We played the slot machines in the back of the VFW hall. We noticed that the state flower of that particular patch of backwoods Mississippi seemed to be the satellite dish, since cable was hardly in vogue at the time. We sat in the Favre living room and watched the video of New Jack City with Brett and his colorful posse. We sat on the swing at the front porch of Me-maw's house and had a beer or 10.
For several years, I stayed in regular touch with Irvin Favre, and would see him at Packers games, or at Super Bowls, and enjoyed the way in which we could still swap tales. Irvin Favre, 58, died on Sunday, after suffering a stroke or a heart attack in Kiln. Condolences to Brett and to his family, who lost a husband, a daddy, a grandfather. The rest of us, well, we lost a pretty good man.
The Kansas City offensive line unit of guards Brian Waters and Will Shields, center Casey Wiegmann and tackles Willie Roaf and John Tait has now started 30 straight games together. That is the longest streak in the league since the New York Giants had the same starting quintet for 34 games in 1985-86.
The San Diego defense has now surrendered 36 touchdown passes. The league record, 40, was set by the Denver Broncos in 1963.
The Dallas wide receivers, who have been in a slump of late, had a combined 10 catches for 169 yards on Sunday.
San Francisco tailback Kevan Barlow has rushed for 393 yards in the three starts in which he replaced an injured Garrison Hearst.
Seven of Carolina's 10 victories this season have been by a touchdown or less.
The Detroit Lions' loss at Carolina on Sunday was their 24th in succession on the road, and that breaks the old mark of 23, held by the Houston Oilers.
The Arizona Cardinals have now lost 13 straight road contests, including seven in 2003.
Chiefs strong safety Greg Wesley, who a lot of observers felt was certainly worthy of Pro Bowl consideration this year, had quite a game in Saturday's loss. He registered 11 tackles, a sack, an interception and one forced fumble.
The Redskins have lost six games this season by four points or less.
In seeming defiance of the NFL's uniform policies, Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson once again wore orange cleats on Sunday at St. Louis, all but daring league officials to issue another fine.