Back in the spring of 2001, when then-University of Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter was going through the trumped-up charade of making up his mind whether to return to the Bulldogs for his senior season or commit to the NFL draft, people actually acted like there was a real decision to be made. Truth be told, no one at Georgia, from first-year coach Mark Richt down to the players, really wanted Carter back on campus in Athens, and that was hardly a secret throughout the state.
Mike Cloud, Patriots RB
It would be easy to choose Chiefs return man Dante Hall but, then again, he's getting more than his share of credit. So how about a guy who wasn't even sure he would be back in the league in 2003, not after NFL officials suspended him four games after he tested positive for a banned substance? This week's citation goes to Mike Cloud of the Patriots, a New England native who played collegiately at Boston College, and who ran for 73 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries in Sunday's win over Tennessee. Cloud missed the first four games of the year because of the suspension -- he is suing the manufacturer of the supplement, by the way, claiming the bottle was mislabeled -- and also had to rehabilitate from a torn calf suffered in training camp. The fifth-year veteran wasn't even activated until Saturday afternoon and figured he would mostly just play on the special teams units. His 42-yard run was the longest of his career. A bow, too, to a Pats offensive line that carved big holes in the league's top-rated run defense.
Comments elicited from a league general manager and an NFC scout:
"That loss at Philadelphia on Sunday, I'm betting, will prompt Washington owner Dan Snyder to make some kind of roster move. I mean, the guy gets itchy, and he doesn't seem to realize that a young quarterback like (Patrick) Ramsey is going to have ups and downs. So here's my guess: Look for the Redskins to sign (free agent) tight end Byron Chamberlain this week. Snyder has been hot to get a pass-catching tight end ever since he failed to land Wesley Walls. And Chamberlain, who I hear weighed in at 264 pounds at his Friday workout in Washington, is definitely a natural receiver."
"Now you see why Pittsburgh has been so reluctant to give (quarterback) Tommy Maddox a big, fat contract extension, right? He had two more interceptions on Sunday night and is making a ton of poor reads. I kept thinking the guy was going to wake up at some point and come out of that dream he was in last season. Seems like it's happened now. Of course, that doesn't bode well now or in the future for Pittsburgh, because the only alternative is Charlie Batch and our staff feels like he's just a guy who is always going to be hurt and not able to survive a full season."
"My, gosh, the Atlanta offensive line is atrocious. I mean, (left tackle Bob) Whitfield ought to be ashamed of himself. He was called for holding, when he basically tackled (Minnesota rush end) Lance Johnstone, and that gave the Vikings a safety. Then there was a play where he was bull-rushed, knocked right back on his heels, by Kenny Mixon. Look, Whitfield has been a longtime underachiever, but that performance Sunday was pitiful. In fact, that whole line (stinks), really. They keep talking about being smaller and quicker. That bunch is just flat-out getting beat most weeks. And the defensive line, which is also very small, can't stop anybody it looks like."
"One more thing about that Falcons-Vikings game: Two great coordinators there for the Vikes in (George) O'Leary on defense and (Scott) Linehan on offense. I really don't know Linehan, but he's done a real nice job. I'll bet you a beer right now both those guys are college head coaches within the next two years."
"Here's the best defensive rookie in the league and don't even try to argue it: Green Bay's (middle linebacker) Nick Barnett. I watched him Sunday and he's real, real good. Leads the team in tackles (54), had a sack or two (actually two) and plays the pass well (he has two interceptions along with three passes defensed). They got him late in the (first) round and he was a steal. For a guy who never played in the middle before, he looks natural in there."
"I know Jimmy Johnson keeps saying he'll never coach again. But if Dan Reeves steps down after this year in Atlanta, that owner there (Arthur Blank) will call him just to see if he might be interested. Blank isn't going to settle for some no-name."
Heard in the pressbox
The San Diego Chargers are dangling nine-year veteran Darren Bennett, who was named the punter on the '90s team of the decade. At age 38, Bennett has lost some leg strength, but there are a couple teams who seem interested in acquiring him before the Oct. 14 trade deadline. San Diego drafted a gifted punter, Mike Scifres, in the fifth round this year and he's been handling kickoffs. Time to let him do what he does best, teams officials feel, and that means moving Bennett out of the way. ... The Cardinals are close on a four-year extension for linebacker Raynoch Thompson and a two-year extension for punter Scott Player. ... A high-ranking Falcons official summoned wideout Peerless Price to his office last week and instructed the big-money pass catcher to start playing up to his contract. And, oh, yeah, to keep his mouth shut, too, about not getting the football enough. ... Atlanta cornerback Tyrone Williams, suspended last week for conduct detrimental to the team, is playing at about 10-12 pounds overweight and can't seem to shed the extra tonnage. ... Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse looks back nearly all the way from his toe injury of a year ago and that puts him in pretty favorable bargaining position now for a big contract extension. "The Freak" had two sacks Sunday and now has 4½ for the season. ... Even though he had eight catches for 137 yards Sunday in his first appearance since ending his drug-related suspension, Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith still is very much shy of conditioning. Smith weighed in last week at 210 pounds but appeared a bit soft.
The former Atlanta-area prep star spent three seasons in the Chicago Cubs' minor league system before he abandoned baseball and resumed his football career, he was older than most Bulldogs players when he arrived on campus, and purportedly carried himself above the locker room crowd. And so Carter, shunned by a program that essentially stole him away from in-state rival Georgia Tech, where he had signed a letter of intent upon concluding his high school career and signing the baseball deal with the Cubbies, made the only move available to him. He entered the draft and was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys -- or more specifically, owner Jerry Jones, who personally scouted him -- in the second round of the '01 lottery.
Those who knew Carter the best always understood one of his most significant shortcomings was a thin skin. Now any quarterback who doesn't have the hide of an elephant, and who is starting for a team coached by Bill Parcells, would seem doomed to failure. Where I reside, in Atlanta, the legion of Carter-bashers suggested Parcells might have a more difficult time co-existing with the quarterback than with his sometimes-nettlesome owner. But here we are, four games into the season and with Dallas sitting at 3-1, and Carter has been one of the primary catalysts for the Cowboys' resurgence. Granted, the schedule will now grow markedly more difficult, a meat-grinder of a slate, in fact. You think the Cowboys earned those first three victories, two shy of their wins in each of the last three seasons? Every notch in the left-hand side of the wins-losses ledger could be an upset of sorts in the next couple of months.
But a new and improved Quincy Carter has done what Parcells wants his quarterbacks to do: Managed the game, avoided killer turnovers, shown some feel for the importance of the position. We have noted before on this site how masterful Parcells is at pushing the right buttons, and he has certainly done that to date at the quarterback spot. And as mentioned on Friday in the weekly "Tip Sheet" column, assistant head coach and quarterbacks mentor Sean Payton deserves plaudits as well, as he has helped to hold Carter together while beginning to resurrect his own career. Carter's numbers are not special. But those three victories, for a team of incredibly modest talent, are huge.
Funny thing, but when Jones chose Carter amid hoots in 2001, one component that he cited was the quarterback's ability to throw the deep ball. Carter is doing just that right now. So maybe Jones, huh, is a better talent scout than most of us have credited him with being? And maybe, just maybe, Quincy Carter is a much better quarterback than all the skeptics felt he was, too. There is plenty of season left for Carter to go into the tank, for Parcells to become frustrated and replace him with Chad Hutchinson, who went to camp as the frontrunner for the top job. But through four games, Carter has demonstrated that Parcells made a savvy choice, and begun to validate Jones' pick of three years ago.
Brunell deserves better
On the subject of quarterbacks, let's be about as brutally candid about this as possible: Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and first-year coach Jack Del Rio have every right to start the quarterback of their liking, and their preference is first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich. But even in a game that lacks sentiment, some guys have earned a right to be handled with some degree of grace, and Jacksonville veteran Mark Brunell certainly is among them. Whatever enmity now exists between Brunell and the guy who has signed his paychecks for nine seasons now should have been avoided. Brunell should have been traded or released in the offseason, or at least after the draft, when it was so obvious that Leftwich would become the new face of the franchise. To hang Brunell out to dry, after he has been such an integral part of club history and piloted the team to a pair of AFC title games, is borderline callousness.
In passing for 336 yards on Sunday and leading the Jags to their first victory of the year, Leftwich deserves to remain the starter, but Brunell deserves some consideration as well. On Wednesday morning, no one even informed the prideful Brunell he was not going to take any snaps in that afternoon's practice. Uh, what we've got here, folks, is a failure to communicate. What we've also got is pettiness on the part of a team that doesn't appreciate the fact Brunell wouldn't acquiesce to the pay cuts the franchise asked him to take. Brunell is privately steamed at what he feels is shabby treatment and he can't be thrilled with having been demoted to the No. 3 "emergency" spot on Sunday afternoon.
There is still little more than a week to trade Brunell, and he has told some confidants he would consider moving on, if he could be "made whole" from a financial standpoint for 2003. Jacksonville has now paid Brunell $1.985 million of the $6.75 million base salary he is due this year. Even at this point, the Jags would save about $2.5 million in cap room by dealing him. Brunell wants to go somewhere he can start again. ESPN's Chris Mortensen suggested Sunday that Brunell would consider the Cowboys as a landing spot, but the play of Carter might scuttle any potential there.
No matter where they send him, though, the Jaguars need to let Brunell out of his misery. He has earned the right to depart and, at least from the league perception, the Jaguars seem to be simply extracting their pound of flesh.
Secondary issues in Pittsburgh
Seems that every time Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher makes it a point to defend his secondary, he ends up leading with, well, his generous chin. That was the case again this week. Cowher and embattled cornerback Chad Scott spent much of the week trying to convince the fretting 'burghers that the problems in the secondary were repairable. And then, against the Cleveland Browns "spread" offense again, Pittsburgh defensive backs were all but torched beyond recognition.
Next time the Steelers face the Browns, families of the secondary starters might want to have a coroner on hand, just to help identify the remains. Just as they did with Kelly Holcomb in last year's playoffs, the Steelers made Tim Couch look like Joe Montana, as he completed 20 of 25 passes for 208 yards before turning the game over to the running attack, and William Green, in the second half. Any of you recall the famous song from The Music Man, in which con man Professor Harold Hill announces to the good townspeople that "we got trouble, right here in River City"? Well, in the Three Rivers City, there is much trouble, especially when an opponent puts more than a couple wide receivers on the field.
One Pittsburgh veteran to whom we spoke last week noted that local critics "(were) crying wolf again" about the secondary woes. "Time to stop that (expletive) 'wolf' call," he said. And now, we agree, upon some consideration. Time instead to call for the fire department to help extinguish the still simmering embers of another outing in which the Cleveland receivers pretty much had their way with the helpless and hapless Pittsburgh secondary.
Carrying the load in Carolina
Back about two months ago, we opined that Carolina Panthers tailback Stephen Davis might be the single-most important veteran acquired in free agency, because he was such a precise fit for the way his new team plays.
Uh, yeah, we're also the guys who strongly hinted that Davis would never collect on most of the performance bonuses in his contract with the Panthers, because the trigger thresholds are so high. OK, sorry about that one, Big Stephen. But Sunday offered yet the latest example of why Davis is so essential to the fortunes of the undefeated and upstart Panthers. He warded off cramps and leg problems late in the game to do what he does best: Bleed the clock. Davis came out of the locker room to carry three times for 10 yards, and a first down, to secure the victory over New Orleans. As usual, the Panthers followed their simplistic formula, but it's difficult to argue with the club's Stone Age game plans given the success Carolina is experiencing.
Our rationale in prognosticating months ago that Davis would be a big hit in Carolina was based on the fact the team loves to run the ball, but has squandered plenty of leads in the fourth quarter over the past two seasons, because it lacked a human wrecking ball. Enter the picture Stephen Davis, a proven workhorse, and a guy capable of moving the chains and moving the timepiece as well. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning is famous for riding a big back to the finish line and the play of Davis in four games is an indicator the veteran assistant hasn't lost that knack. Davis has rushed for 100-plus yards in all four Panthers games to date. Further, he has logged 106 carries, a pace that would project to 424 attempts. That would break the NFL record, 410 rushes, established by Atlanta's Jamal Anderson in 1998. Then again, Miami tailback Ricky Williams could absolutely obliterate the rushing attempts mark, since he's on pace for 460 carries.
Dante for MVP?
So can a return specialist actually be a legitimate candidate for NFL most valuable player honors? Dante Hall is forcing the doubters to believe it could happen. The mighty mite of the Kansas City Chiefs now has seven kickoff and punt returns for scores in the last 10 games. More remarkably, he has won the past two contests for the Chiefs, with a kickoff return against Baltimore last week and a punt runback versus Denver on Sunday. Maybe some brainy special teams coach from an opponent will actually figure out some day soon how to kick the ball away from the fourth-year veteran, huh?
Meanwhile, a tip of the cap to Chiefs special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr., the son of one of the premier kicking game mentors in recent NFL history, is long overdue. I don't know the junior Gansz, but certainly know his dad, and special teams were an obsession for the elder and, I'm guessing for his kid, too. Then again, no special teams coach in the world could have drawn up the return Hall executed Sunday. Bet the house, in fact, that Gansz Jr. was about to suffer a stroke when Hall retreated to his own end zone before taking off on his serpentine soiree into pay dirt at the opposite end of Arrowhead Stadium.
The little guy simply is amazing. Then again, he'd better continue to be, since the Kansas City offense is still sputtering. More specifically the passing game, which can't seem to get the ball to its wide receivers, or even its all-world tight end. When we noted last week that we were underwhelmed by the uninspiring Chiefs aerial attack, the e-mails began to float in from the country's midsection. But, hey, starting wideouts Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison have combined for only 29 catches, 413 yards and two scores in five games. And that includes just three receptions for 42 yards Sunday against the Denver secondary. In five games, Trent Green has but 84 completions, and has thrown as many interceptions as touchdown passes (six).
The way things have been going, the Chiefs are getting by on great defense, Priest Holmes and the scintillating derring-do on Dante Hall. It's going to take more than that to make people forget the St. Louis offense to which the Chiefs are so frequently compared, and to get deep into the playoffs, too.
Out of hibernation
Kudos to the Chicago Bears, nothing shy of abysmal in their first three contests, for getting a win on Sunday afternoon. And against the Oakland Raiders, no less, a club that clearly felt the Bears would continue their hibernation for at least another week or so.
Here's hoping that, when they get around to parceling out games balls in The Windy City, they save a few for the special teams. Paul Edinger knocked home three field goals, two of them from 48 yards or more, including the game-winner. Jerry Azumah, demoted this week from his starting cornerback spot, had five kickoff returns for 126 yards. It would have been easy for Azumah to sulk about losing his job to rookie Charles Tillman but he found a way, instead, to make a contribution. And R.W. McQuarters returned two punts for 59 yards. Not bad. Sometimes you get an upset victory by doing the little things a bit better than the other guy and that was the case for the Bears.
Good to see, too, that the "A-Train" is back on track, with a second strong performance (123 rushing yards) from former rookie of the year Anthony Thomas.
There were four safeties on Sunday, two each by the Minnesota and Dallas defenses, and there was only one safety through the first four weeks of play.
Uh, just making a point here, folks, so no hate mail, please. We just wanted to note, with zero hidden agenda, that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb finally notched his first touchdown pass of the season on Sunday afternoon.
Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey had 11 catches for 110 yards. Rod Smith, the Denver wide receiver, had eight grabs for 131 yards. Wideouts David Boston of San Diego and Peerless Price combined for 26 catches and 349 yards. The common thread for all four players? They were all on the losing end of the score Sunday afternoon.
In case anyone missed it, Rod "He Hate Me" Smart of XFL fame (infamy?) had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Carolina's victory.
There were just 48,954 in attendance at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville on Sunday and the Jags-Chargers game was not carried by a single television station in the state.
Jaguars defensive end Tony Brackens had a sack Sunday and, with three quarterback kills for the season, is starting to flash some of his old quickness after two knee surgeries.
All five Redskins games this year have been determined by three points or less.
Brett Favre engineered five straight touchdown drives in Green Bay's victory over Seattle. That's the most consecutive TD drives for a team this season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.