MORT'S MAILBAG | July 24
Q: Why do experts and fans alike continue to pick the Philadelphia Eagles over the New York Giants to win the NFC East? This makes no sense to me. The Giants have the edge on offense and defense and (this year) on special teams. How can the G-Men not win the NFC East this year? -- Mike (Hoboken, N.J.)
MORT -- Mike, I don't think you can blame anybody for picking the Eagles again to win the NFC East. It's a natural. They are a two-time defending divisional champ, they have reached the NFC championship game the past two years and they have QB Donovan McNabb back in what should become his prime seasons. So the Eagles are the safe pick, and some might say even the smart pick. Me, I think the Giants are way overlooked. If their defensive line can come together, then they can win the NFC East. Internally, the Giants believe they are better -- maybe much better -- than their most recent Super Bowl team.
Q: Do you think that coach Dan Reeves can utilize all the talent the Atlanta Falcons have on offense to be true contenders? Or will owner Arthur Blank have to find an offensive mastermind (like a Jon Gruden) before the Falcons become true Super Bowl contenders? -- C.E. Smith (Atlanta, Ga.)
MORT -- C.E., it's pretty difficult to suggest that the Falcons need to dump Reeves to become true Super Bowl contenders. The man has coached four teams to Super Bowls -- and even though all four have been losing efforts, the consensus is that all of those teams (three in Denver, one in Atlanta) were classic overachievers (the flip side is that they were overachievers because Dan could have been better at picking players). As for the current Falcons team with Michael Vick at QB: Phil Simms (who played QB for Dan with the Giants) told me the day Vick was drafted that Dan's offense was ideal for Vick's specific skills. Now if the Falcons should stumble this year, I have little doubt that Mr. Blank will hire the best possible coach with a background on offense. He tried to "freeze" Steve Mariucci for a year by hiring him as a consultant in an under-reported story.
Q: Do you think this might finally be the year that Rich Gannon starts to slide? He's not getting any younger and the Super Bowl may have exposed some of his weaknesses. -- Todd (Charlotte, N.C.)
MORT -- I saw nothing to indicate that Rich Gannon is about to begin a slide. In fact, he's coming off his first MVP season in which he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Did he play poorly in the Super Bowl? Yes. The Bucs' defense has made a lot of quarterbacks look average (ask Brett Favre ... ask Kurt Warner ... ask Michael Vick). So I have to give Gannon and the Raiders the benefit of the doubt going into this season.
Q: I'm interested in a comment you made in your July 16 mailbag. You said that NFL teams "break contracts all the time." Please elaborate on this. Are teams acting in bad faith? Is that why a player with a long contract can still be cut at any time? Michael Strahan once said, "Nothing is guaranteed but your signing bonus." Is this what he meant? Thanks! -- Jay (Clearwater, Fla.)
MORT -- Jay, that is exactly what Michael Strahan meant. Now I will say that if a team invests a huge signing bonus in a player, you can rest assured that the first two or three years of his contract will be honored because the investment has been made in that player. Basically, about 95 percent of the contracts are not guaranteed, except that signing bonus. Some teams with lesser cash flow will guarantee certain portions of a contract to compensate for a smaller signing bonus. But teams and agents all play a game to get around the salary cap and they usually go into a "long-term" deal knowing that very few of them will be fulfilled.
As a side note about the lack of guaranteed contracts, the NFL believes (properly so) that having fully guaranteed contracts like the other pro sports leagues would be a self-inflicted wound. "Hurt" players would become "injured" players and you probably would see them on the field a lot less. About 70 percent of the NFL's players prepare and compete at a maximum level because they are trying to survive in their profession. That creates a very competitive league with outstanding performances by the players.
Q: At a time in the NFL where the premium on rushing is as high as it's ever been, I'm perplexed as to why no team has seriously entertained Ricky Watters as an option. Granted, his last reported contract demands were seemingly outrageous. But what do you think it would take money-wise to get him on the field, and is there any interest out there for his services? -- Kevin (Rochester, N.Y.)
MORT -- My understanding is that Watters wants between $1 and $2 million to make a return to the field. That's basically what he has communicated to the Bucs. Coach Jon Gruden told me he hasn't given up on Watters but considers it a long shot. Otherwise, I don't sense any demand for Watters, who is in his 30s, has sat out a year and experienced some leg injuries in his last season (2001) with the Seahawks.