AFC East mailbag: 'Football's a tough game'

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Of everything I wrote this week, nothing generated a passionate response like the item that pointed out a vulnerability in the Miami Dolphins' single-wing offensive package.

The Wildcat, which the Dolphins introduced in their 38-13 victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday, involves a direct shotgun snap to tailback Ronnie Brown to run, hand off or pass. Ricky Williams, as a wingback, comes in high-speed motion at the snap for a possible handoff. Quarterback Chad Pennington splits wide as a receiver.

In this formation, the quarterback no longer is protected as a passer normally would be. On run plays, a defender can manhandle him as a potential blocker. On pass plays, the defender can jam him at the line.

I noted that exposing such a high-priced, integral player would give defenses a chance to make a statement. Sounded logical to me, and Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano admitted to me such tactics were a concern.

Kevin in Steamboat Springs, Colo., writes: Tim, why wouldn't Miami just have the QB run straight out of bounds? Line up wide as possible, therefore taking a DB or someone out there with you then just step out of bounds. Dude can't you come up with something better to stop this play?

Tim Graham: The quarterback certainly could run out of bounds, and that's one of the responses Sparano advocates for Pennington if he finds himself in danger. I didn't write that jacking the quarterback would stop the play from being effective. I wrote that it would be a reason to deter teams from calling the play. If, while the tailback is running for a 15-yard gain, the quarterback is picking grass out of his facemask, then you have to evaluate whether you want to keep running it.

Chris in Seoul writes: That is a pretty mean spirited thing to suggest. Thoughts like that are what take away from the beauty of this game. I can't believe that you actually wroite that as a legitimate way to plan a defense.

Tim Graham: And auto racing fans think crashes detract from the race, and hockey fans avert their eyes when a fight breaks out. There's a reason backgammon isn't played in a 75,000-seat stadium.

Mr. Anonymous from Parts Unknown writes: Tim Graham. You are a piece of trash for writing this article. This is exactly why the NFL hate people like you as do I. I'm not in it to see players hurt on purpose, but then I have a conscience. I guess you don't or you wouldn't make an asinine comment about destroying the QB lined up as a receiver. May your own advice come back and haunt you, you pathetic excuse for a writer.

Tim Graham writes: Nowhere in my story did I write that a defender should hit the quarterback illegally or that it was acceptable to purposely injure a player. But making an opponent feel pain is a fundamental aspect of the game.

Former Dolphins guard and future Hall of Famer Bob Kuechenberg said this to me a few weeks ago, when I asked him if players would go after Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman's injured knee:

You have to go after it. You've got to do what's best for your team. You've go to do your job.

You may not say exactly "Go at his knees." But if the player has a weak link, that's what you have to attack.

I remember Dick Butkus was pretty limp, dragging his knee pretty badly the only time I got an opportunity to play him. It was late in his career. We were champions already, and the Bears were pretty bad. Everybody knew we were going to win by a big margin, and he was my brother Rudy's roommate. So when we were watching films, you could see that if you wanted to own Butkus, you took him out at the knee. But I told myself "Nope. I'm not going to go high. I'm going to take him on like a man." The first time I tried that it wasn't very enjoyable. Every play after that I was going right for that knee.

Football's a tough game. It's his body, and may God's will be done.

This sort of philosophy, championed by NFL Films for years, is a substantial reason why football is so popular. You can almost hear John Facenda reading Kuechenberg's quote with "Up She Rises" playing in the background.

Christian in Buffalo writes: In week 3, both Miami and Buffalo ran plays with a RB playing QB, and their QB flanked out as a WR. As a defensive coordinator, wouldn't the best counter be having a LB unload on either Pennington or Edwards. If I'm not mistaken, they would no longer be protected, and since usually the play is some type of run, they would essentially be a blocker. That type of risk doesn't seem to merit the reward, especially in the Bills case, where the play only generated a 5 yard run. Your thoughts please, because I may be missing something.

Tim Graham: I think you might be onto something there, Christian.

Bill in Pittsburgh writes: With everyone else having a division loss already, what do you think about the AFC East finishing like this: 1) Buffalo 2) Jets 3) Pats (same w-l record as Jersey/B, but Jets end with better conference record) 4) Dolphins Realistic, or still a pipe dream?

Jacob in St. Paul, Minn., writes: Given what you've seen so far this season, in what order would you pick the AFC East teams to finish? By the way, I loved the "trying to decipher Sanskrit with a French-to-cuneiform dictionary" line.

Tim Graham: Anything is possible in the AFC East this year. You look at the division before the season started and you could chalk up an automatic two wins over the Dolphins and an automatic two losses to the Patriots.

Now, it looks like any AFC East team can win against another. In fact, the three teams other than the Bills (they don't play a divisional game until Week 8) are 1-1 against each other. The Patriots beat the Jets who beat the Dolphins who beat the Patriots.

Based on their fast start, the Bills have the inside lane for first place. The other clubs can sort out any number of ways.

mtsam in Oakland writes: Brett played 16 years in Green Bay as a starter, never missed a game and the only injury he has sustained in all those years was a thumb injury. He played 3 games with the Jets and he is questionable and may not start on Sunday. The Jets have talented players but I question the coaching staff, particualarly the head coach. They got lucky with the win in Miami. Brett does not look happy as a Jet, he does not seem inspired and his heart may not be in it anymore. What are the chances that Brett will ask for a trade?

Tim Graham: I suppose Brett Favre could ask for a trade. Would the Jets consider it? No way. That Favre is listed on the injury report shouldn't be taken too seriously. These are the Jets, after all. Laveranues Coles is on the report every week.

Alex in St. Paul, Minn., writes: Some bills fans have been questioning Marshawn Lynch's status as a top back in the nfl, what do you think?

Tim Graham: He's a top-five runner in the NFL, but what limits his reputation as a great all-around running back is that he has little impact as a receiver compared to other elite running backs.

Jim in Glendale writes: After reading your little article on the Miami/Pats game I can't believe they even give you a spot on here to write anything. They say even a blind squirrel finds a nut everynow and then...this was miami's nut. This was their one and only win of the season. Do you honestly think that the Pats want to even play behind the likes of Cassell? I truly believe these players have already given up on this season and most of them are already in the off season from the way they were playing they looked like they did not want to be on the field...can you blame them? They are like the colts, If manning goes down, they go down.

Tim Graham: So which is it? Did the Dolphins get lucky like a blind squirrel, or did the Patriots quit? And if the Patriots are in the tank for the season, then shouldn't the Dolphins win their meeting in Miami, too? The Dolphins will not finish 1-15 this year.

Ben in Rochester, N.Y., writes: If Trent Edwards continues at his current pace, is he a top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year?

Tim Graham: Not a chance. Those honors go to veterans who have overcome a serious injury or endured a long professional struggle such as riding the pine for an eternity or getting cut several times. Edwards suffered a run-of-the-mill wrist injury last year as a rookie and missed only a few games.

G-Baby in Cleveland writes: How much does Roscoe Parrish's injury hurt him? I understand he is a vital asset to the team with his return skills and speed at the reciever position, but with Mckelvin possesing the abilities he has to dominate the return game and with James Hardy being able to get the expierence needed to become an elite option at WR, does the chance and possibilty of those two excelling seem to damage Roscoe's position on the team if the Bills continue to enjoy succes?

Tim Graham: Parrish, the NFL's reigning punt return king, is out four to six weeks because of a thumb injury. The Bills should be fine without him for the reasons you listed. First-round pick Leodis McKelvin was electric when returning kicks for Tory and set a slew of records.

The biggest concern will be in the passing game, where Parrish had been a significant contributor in the first three games. James Hardy, Justin Jenkins or Steve Johnson will need to assert themselves.

Beth in Baltimore writes: Do you think (or how long do you think) Roscoe will achieve Tasker status? Also, when do you predict Tasker in the HOF?

Tim Graham: Parrish is a fabulous return man and incredibly entertaining, but he'll have a long way to go to match Steve Tasker's aura. Tasker is beloved because he was a fearless, all-around special-teams performer. He returned kicks, busted wedges and torpedoed coverages.

Does Tasker get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? That's a great debate topic. I'm not sure, but I think he belongs there. Here's a blog post I wrote about that subject a couple months ago.

Alex in Pennsylvania writes: Tim, in your opinion what is wrong with the 'in the grasp' rule? In the Miami/Jets game, Favre was pretty much down on the ground, yet no whistle, and he throws a hail mary for a TD. On the flip side, against the Pats they blew the whistle for a sack on Cassel as 'in the grasp' , but it seemed to me as if he could have escaped. We all know what happened in the SB with Manning and the Magic Play. Can you better explain the rule?

Tim Graham: I'm not a big fan of the in-the-grasp rule because it creates a judgment situation that's not consistently called from game to game and referee to referee. But I understand the spirit of the rule, which is to protect quarterbacks, who are highly paid and vulnerable. Owners want their investments guarded as much as possible, and keeping quarterbacks healthy is good for the NFL's competitiveness and entertainment value.

That said, as referenced above, if a team wants to put its quarterback at risk by taking him out of position, then all bets are off.

Brandon from Greensboro, N.C., writes: Hey Tim! Do you think the Dolphins defense can continue to improve and to play with the level of intensity we saw against the Pats? Will Joey Porter be that disruptive all season? I hope so... Thanks and love your blog!

Tim Graham: It was one great game, but one great game can fuel an enthusiastic defense. Not only did they have fun against the Patriots, but they thrived against one of the NFL's more decorated offensive lines. The Patriots have Pro Bowlers at center, left guard and left tackle. The Dolphins probably can't wait to get back on the field and try it again. Porter is starting to prove he was miscast under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Porter has been moved to the weak-side and played like a fiend in Foxborough.

Dave from Parts Unknown writes: Why hasn't the league suspended Nick Kaczur? The NFL does not test for oxycodone but does prohibit the misuse of prescription drugs. Kaczur had been arrested in April 2008 for illegal possession of the prescription painkiller oxycodone. It seems like a double standard and really makes mockery of the NFL's drug policy.

Tim Graham: While Kaczur was caught bringing a copious amount of prescription medication over the Canadian border, he never went on trial for that. He assisted in a sting operation to nail the supplier and had his charges reduced to a traffic citation.

Misuse of prescription drugs is a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, but first-time offenders enter an evaluation program and aren't eligible for suspension until other violations of the policy are committed such as failing a test or not meeting treatment requirements.

Jim in Sarasota, Fla., writes: Do you still think that the Jets are in the same class as the Bills? Any regrets on your preseason predictions?

Tim Graham: Like a new car the minute you drive it off the lot, preseason predictions plummet in value even before the first Monday night kickoff. Predictions and power rankings are done for fun and to give us one more reason to debate the game we all love. Beyond that, I don't give them a moment's thought.

Andres in Costa Rica writes: Hi Mr. Graham. Congrats on your column. For me the Pats are facing the same situation as in preseason with Cassel behind center. Maybe he knows the system all around, but he cant perform
and its affecting the team's morale. What do you think are the chances for M. Gutierrez to start any game soon, yes maybe he has no NFL experience (not that Cassel had loads of it) but nevertheless, he did play better in preseason than MC. And, so far what do you think of the PatsĀ“ rookies? First, there were a lot of talking when Mayo got drafted that he was a mid rounder, then in preseason that he was for real, right now where do you see him and the rest of the rookies? Thanks for your time

Tim Graham: Thanks for the kind words, Andre. You're absolutely correct that Gutierrez outplayed Matt Cassel in the preseason. But for now, Gutierrez is the third quarterback. The Patriots decided to keep rookie Kevin O'Connell out of training camp and elevated him to the primary backup role after Tom Brady suffered his season-ending knee injury. Gutierrez has been the third quarterback on game days, and that clearly slots him behind O'Connell on the depth chart. O'Connell saw mop-up duty last week in the lopsided loss to Miami.

Gary in Albany, N.Y., writes: Dear Tim, i really enjoy your insights into the AFC east and was hoping you could enlighten me with your thoughts on this matter. Do you see the Bills becoming contenders when playing the better teams in the AFC? And Fred Jackson getting a more prominent role in their offense?

Tim Graham: What impresses me about the Bills is that they're 3-0, should be 4-0 by Sunday night and might be 5-0 heading into their bye week but still have a lot of areas to improve as the season advances. For example, their offensive line, particularly the play of left tackle Jason Peters, should get steadier. Backup running back Fred Jackson is a player who can emerge as a more significant contributor, especially as a receiver with Parrish sidelined for a few weeks.

Maxwell in Buffalo writes: i just wanted to say that i thought trent edwards showed a tremendous amount of poise in the 4th quarter sunday. his passes were where they needed to be and his pocket awareness near paralleled that of a brett farve. great quarter backs pull off wins like that. the future is now in buffalo. addition comment: great job of jauron to bench our 'pro bowl' left tackle peters (who wants more money) in the 2nd quarter. he was getting burned. should he remain on the line after that performance? line looked best in week 1

Tim Graham: Edwards has looked sharp late in games. In the fourth quarter this year, Edwards is 24 of 32 for 283 yards and two touchdowns. As for Jason Peters being on the sideline late in the first half, that was because somebody stepped on his hand. He said he came off for a few plays to get it taped.

Michael in DeWitt, Mich., writes: Why is everyone I see giving up on the Pats? Everywhere I go they say things like "There go their plaayoff chances." Give Cassel a chance!

Tim Graham: Just as John and Yoko sang all those years ago ...

Kolby from Parts Unknown writes: I was just curious to know why the dolphins have not been using Ted Ginn Jr. to return kicks and punts. With such an explosive playmaker available and moves in the offseason to stabalize their coverage, I just expected Ginn Jr. to make plays on special teams. I don't know if it's to save him for offensive production, because it seems like they do not have the quarterback or playcalling to get him the ball enough. He was they returner all through the preseason and they have yet to utilize him, your thoughts or insight?

Tim Graham: One of my fearless preseason predictions was that Ginn would break out as one of the NFL's top punt returners this year. Not only does he possess the innate skills necessary, but the Dolphins also bolstered their roster with players known for the special-teams acumen.

But it looks like the Dolphins are happy with Davone Bess in that role. Bess has been impressive. He ranks second in the NFL at 17.4 yards a punt return.

Justin in Charlotte, N.C., writes: How do you feel about the upcoming schedule for Buffalo? With 3 wins in hand and maybe the worst team in the NFL, the Rams, in their sights, I would assume Buffalo will be 4-0 after Week 4. Week 5 takes the Bills out to Arizona, who through 3 weeks shows plenty of strengths. But a weak run-stopping defense should be no problem for the Lynch/Jackson tandem. A Week 6 bye is followed by a return home against the Chargers, performing under expectations, is their final game before their unusual Week 8 opening against the AFC East. I can't see the Bills with worse than a 7-2 record through Week 10. And the schedule only gets easier from there... Week 11 brings Cleveland to Orchard Park, and Week 12's road game to Kansas City, and Week 13 vs. San Francisco should be no problem, barring any significant injuries to Bills starters by this point in the season. Another 3 games in the last 4 weeks against the AFC, with maybe the toughest game of the season, at the Denver Broncos in Week 16 could give this playoff-bound team the push they need going into the postseason. How much does this schedule favor the Bills this season? Is it unreasonable to see the Buffalo Bills winning 12 or 13 games this season?

Tim Graham: Your breakdown seems a little ambitious to me, but it's not totally unrealistic. Opponents such as the Chargers, Jets, Patriots and Broncos -- all coming after the Week 6 bye -- will be the best indicators of how far the Bills can go in the playoffs. As for 12 or 13 victories, that will be difficult. There are a lot of lesser teams on the schedule, but divisional play could be a minefield. Everybody looks competitive. The Dolphins aren't freebies anymore.

Brian from Parts Unknown quotes a passage from my preview of the Dolphins-Patriots game: "The Dolphins have shown virtually no running game or passing game, and they're about to go up against an elite front seven that includes the NFL's best defensive line. The Dolphins' pass defense has been immolated, and they're going to face Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Other than that and special teams, the Dolphins have the edge." Being a huge Dolphin fan since the 70's, I would love to rip into you ... but you hit it right on the head. Miami has almost no chance in this game. What the Hell is wrong with Porter? Obviously someone needs to tell him to put up or shut up!

Tim Graham: Brian, shall we cut our humble pie into quarters or eighths?