Morning After: Eagles' run over?
The Eagles should still be competitive next year, but the team could look very different.
All right, here is one from slightly out of left field, folks: Oft-injured Carolina middle linebacker Dan Morgan posted 13 tackles, one interception, and a pass defensed in the Panthers' victory. In his first three seasons, the former University of Miami standout has missed 18 games (more than a full season's worth of outings) with a variety of ailments, including two concussions in 2003. But when Morgan is physically whole, he is a player of rare ability, a big hitter who can really run. Against the Eagles, the guy was all over the field, and Philadelphia linemen could not get out to seal him off.
Comments elicited from an NFC personnel director:
|Heard in the grapevine|
That's a painful observation to make about the Eagles, in part because we still consider team president Joe Banner the best cap manager in the business, and because owner Jeff Lurie swears he reads us on a daily basis. Good guys, Lurie and Banner, really top-shelf in their dealings with us. But they woke up on Monday morning with the same hangover, and the same dose of brutal reality, with which they awakened the day after each of the previous two NFC championship games: Good guys who still haven't marshaled their team to a Super Bowl berth.
In some cases, of course, three is a charm. In Philadelphia, after the fog of another NFC title game defeat, three will be an alarm. Oh, the Eagles will almost certainly contend again in 2004, given that there remains a solid nucleus of talent. But the fact is, this Philadelphia Eagles team won't contend for a fourth straight season. Because this Eagles team, as currently configured, pretty much ceased to exist just seconds after the scoreboard clock at Lincoln Financial Field drained down to all zeroes Sunday evening. That isn't to suggest that the Eagles will be dismantled in the months ahead. Dismantled, after all, is a very strong word. And it would be ill-advised to tear down this team in wholesale manner. But there were changes after the team's first two NFL title game defeats -- some alterations that made this team arguably the least talented of the three Philly rosters to advance to within one victory of a Super Bowl invitation -- and the tweaks coming to the team this spring and summer might be the most dramatic yet.
Clearly, this is a team with tons of cap room, as usual. Philadelphia has only about $60.5 million committed to its '04 roster, not counting qualifying offers the club will make to some veterans, and Donovan McNabb ($8.9 million) and right offensive tackle Jon Runyan ($5.5 million) are the only guys with salary cap charges of more than $3 million for next year. But it is the veterans who aren't on the 2004 cap who could be worrisome. Both starting cornerbacks, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Strong-side linebacker Carlos Emmons, who finished the season on injured reserve and definitely was missed on Sunday, also can hit the open market. Tailback Duce Staley, who missed all of training camp last summer in a salary dispute, will be pursued in free agency by teams like Dallas and Washington, you can bet.
Banner has always been sage in contractual dealings, at times acting almost like an actuary, in determining what aging players ought to be retained. Vincent will be 33 by the time the '04 season starts. Taylor is 30 and Emmons will be 31 in September. Bank on this: Banner will carefully consult his tables that indicate to him at what age players at different positions begin to erode. It would be difficult to go into next season minus both cornerbacks, but that is part of the reason the Eagles cleverly chose defensive backs with their three first picks in the 2002 lottery. One of those youngsters, strong safety Michael Lewis, is already a starter. Another, corner Sheldon Brown, is the team's "nickel" back. It's time for Lito Sheppard, the Eagles' top pick in that draft, to step up.
It might be time, too, for Philadelphia to invest some of that cap room on a big-time receiver. We admire the rationale of coach Andy Reid, that he would prefer to spend money on the defense, because he can decipher a way to make the offense work. But at some point, a team needs receivers who bail out a quarterback, and the Eagles' wideouts don't often do that. Former first-rounder Freddie Mitchell made nice strides this season. On the flip side, starters James Thrash and Todd Pinkston had one catch between them on Sunday, for a paltry nine yards.
And then there is the matter of McNabb's psyche. Not many quarterbacks, certainly few as talented as McNabb, have failed in three straight chances to grab the brass (Super Bowl) ring. Nope, courtesy of all the talk-radio stations in town, it figures to be an offseason of debate and denigration for the franchise. Perhaps the only noise louder than those talk-radio rants on Monday will be that of the window of opportunity slamming shut on this Eagles team. The next one could be back in the playoffs in 2004, maybe even back in the NFC championship game, but it won't be the same Eagles bunch that limped off the field Sunday night.
Like a Fox
If the phone rings in Marty Hurney's office early Monday morning, the Carolina Panthers general manager might want to check the caller I.D., just to see if the "775" area code pops up. By way of explanation, the "775" area code includes Las Vegas, home to agent Bob LaMonte, the man who represents Panthers coach John Fox in his contractual dealings. And, make no mistake, there are going to be some upcoming negotiations on the contract Fox signed in 2002 as a first-time NFL head coach. That deal has just a year, and then an option season, remaining on it. We've no idea what the base salaries are but we are betting Fox hasn't hit the $2 million mark in a season yet. Not to worry, because that will change shortly, you can wager the mortgage.
Fox has done a terrific job, taking over a franchise that won just one game the season before he arrived, and stewarding it to the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. He deserves a healthy bump in the paycheck and we're sure Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson, a man for whom we are especially happy, will agree. First, of course, there is the little matter of a Super Bowl. After that, there will be time for haggling, not only with LaMonte, but also with Rick Smith, the agent for quarterback Jake Delhomme. The first-year starter signed a two-year contract for about $4 million as an unrestricted free agent last summer. No way is he going into 2004 as a lame-duck starter. The best is still ahead for Delhomme, both on the field, and at the pay window as well.
Pats line up on offense
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gets a lot of credit, and justifiably so, for designing a blueprint that plays into the strengths of New England quarterback Tom Brady. The Pats don't ask Brady to throw the ball deep very often. As noted here in recent weeks, he spreads things around (eight different receivers on Sunday), and takes care of the ball. The New England passing game is very clever, using the area between the numbers on the field to run an incredible collection of slants and screens and pivot routes, and just moving the chains without the benefit of a lot of big plays. And even though the ground game is suspect, and was again unproductive much of the season, Weis gets something out of it in the playoffs.
But let's give some props here to the New England offensive line and to longtime mentor Dante Scarnecchia, a guy who never gets mentioned among the league's best assistants, but who sure has the secret formula for transforming a bunch of chicken feathers into chicken said. Consider the Pats' starters on Sunday afternoon: Left tackle Matt Light, a second round pick. Left guard Russ Hochstein, a onetime fifth-round pick of Tampa Bay, who has been cut three times in his career. Center Dan Koppen, a rookie fifth-round pick. Right guard Joe Andruzzi, a journeyman who entered the NFL as an undrafted college free agent in 1997. Right tackle Tom Ashworth, an undrafted free agent with San Francisco in 2001.
Not exactly a quintet that would win any beauty contests, that's for sure, but a group that allowed zero sacks on Sunday and really controlled the line of scrimmage. Scarnecchia has two weeks to prepare his collection of rejects for a Carolina defensive front many scouts feel is the league's best. The smart money says that the Patriots line will be ready.
The other Manning
Told you there would be a Manning in the Super Bowl. We just weren't counting on it being Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., that's all. The third-round draft pick, who supplanted Terry Cousin as the starting cornerback opposite Reggie Howard a few weeks ago, had three interceptions in Carolina's upset at Philadelphia.
A lot of NFL scouts liked Manning in the '03 draft but were concerned about his lack of size. Hey, who can blame them, given that the former UCLA star is definitely vertically challenged, at just 5-feet-8. But the Panthers scouts were undeterred. "We knew that he would be a terrific special teams player right off the bat," related former Panthers personnel director Jack Bushofsky, who retired this summer, but is still reveling in the exploits of a roster he certainly helped to construct. "And we felt he would be very good as a 'nickel' guy. And since your 'nickel' corner is on the field so much anyway, this is a guy we really wanted."
The Panthers pegged Manning as about a third-rounder. But with their own third-round choice last April, the 76th overall, they chose Manning's teammate at UCLA, tight end Mike Seidman. Then they started sweating, wondering if Manning would last until their pick in the fourth round, a gamble they ultimately decided they did not want to take. So they shipped a pair of fourth-round choices to Denver for an extra selection in the third round, and grabbed Manning at No. 82 overall.
Said Bushofsky: "You know, with a first-rounder like (right offensive tackle Jordan) Gross, you shouldn't go wrong. But when you hit on a guy like Manning, and he comes through like you felt he might, that's a bonus." By the way, Gross is a superb player, a tackle who will be in about 10 Pro Bowl games before he retires.
Wilson making an impact
I can remember standing in the back of the Pro Player Stadium press box in mid-October, and Pats personnel guru Scott Pioli telling me about Wilson's toughess. "We knew," Pioli said, "he could move inside and play safety. You look at the college tapes and he's out there banging people around."
Wilson is, indeed, a hitter, and he demonstrated that again on Sunday night. In fact, there are probably a couple borderline shots, where Wilson may have led with his helmet, that could merit review this week by the league. Wilson might do well to keep the ol' checkbook handy.
Make a call
Speaking of reviews by the NFL's officiating hierarchy: Please, guys, no more rationalizations about how there are so few penalties in the playoffs because the teams are more disciplined at this level. Officiating chief Mike Perriera has done an outstanding job in communicating better with the media. But, geez, even we media hacks aren't that na´ve.
The zebras all but sew their flags into their knickers come playoff time. Hey, this ain't hockey, fellas, where a trip isn't a trip if it's in the final two minutes or overtime. Holding is holding -- well, maybe that's a poor example, since there is little consistency on that call -- and it doesn't matter if it's the first week of the year or the Super Bowl.
At one point on Sunday afternoon, Tony Dungy was 20 yards out on the field, protesting an obvious hold that was ignored. We're all for keeping the pace of the playoffs moving along and not interrupting such huge games with a flag daze demonstration. But some of the stuff with which players get away in the playoffs is pretty incredible.
The Colts have roughly $78.04 million committed to the '04 cap, which is projected to be about $79 million and change. If the team is forced to use the "franchise" designation on Manning, that could be a cap hit of $18 million-plus. There are backup players with huge numbers, defensive end Chad Bratzke ($10.28 million) and offensive lineman Adam Meadows ($8.73 million), who won't be back at those prices. Backup quarterback Brock Huard, due a phat roster bonus, has a cap number of $5.13 million that needs adjusting. Starting cornerback Walt Harris, whose play has slipped, has a cap value of $3.33 million, and he likely will be sacrificed to make way for a younger player, like Donald Strickland, who has been playing at corner this year.
Until the Manning situation is settled, and despite the company-line rhetoric there really hasn't been much dialogue of late, the Colts will be hamstrung. Polian contended this year the team planned on being able to survive the $15 million cap price Manning carries. Uh, yeah, right. Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks have done an estimable job revamping the defense the last two years, but the unit still needs more work, and maybe more bulk. The smallish Colts look good when they are using their quickness to make plays. But as the season wears on, the Colts tend to wear out, at least a little.
It will be interesting to see if Dungy makes a play during the offseason for Warren Sapp, a pending free agent, and a player he basically nurtured through tough times early in his career. Then again, if the Colts don't get a deal done with Manning to create some cap room, the Sapp matter will be a moot point anyway.
Rich get richer
OK, so they don't make dynasties in the NFL anymore, right? But as the New England Patriots prepare for their second Super Bowl trip in three seasons, something to chew on: Bill Belichick and his joined-at-the-hip personnel chief, Scott Pioli, own seven choices in the first four rounds of the 2004 draft, including two selections in the first round. And they should have back on the field next season, according to recent reports on his ongoing rehabilitation, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. Remember, he's the big-time pass rusher that the Pats stole in the free agent market last summer, but who never played a snap during the regular season because of a serious hip injury. Yep, just what Belichick needs, right? Another one of those hybrid-type linebackers he loves so much. And more young players to add to what was a very productive 2003 lottery.
Injuries finally ground Eagles
Just ignore it
Here's hoping that Peyton Manning goes home, ignores the newspapers (OK, Peyton, even the internet), doesn't watch any television, and kicks back for a while. Manning proved his mettle this year but, given the standard to which a lot of critics seem to hold him, Sunday's defeat will re-ignite the silliness about how he can't win the big game. Did he play well on Sunday? No way. And no one is more cognizant of that than Manning. He noted before departing Gillette Stadium and into the chilly New England evening that he might not even look at the video from Sunday's game. We'd call that a good move.
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