The schedule is now actually slightly beyond the halfway point, with 129 of 256 regular-season games in the books, and there are 15 franchises with losing records. So if you're picking one of the those sub-.500 teams to rebound from the wrong side of the ledger book, to still make a legitimate run for a playoff spot over the final two months of the season, which club would you select? Us, we're looking at the New Orleans Saints, who are 4-5 but perhaps poised to get on a bit of a run.
Donovan McNabb, Eagles QB
We know, even for a blind man, throwing against the Atlanta Falcons secondary would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But this has been such a difficult season to this point for Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Donovan McNabb, with some of the criticism coming from this corner, that the man is due some props. McNabb threw for 312 yards on Sunday at the Georgia Dome and, no, this is not a typo, actually had a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, his first of the year. The performance still doesn't absolve McNabb of some culpability for the team's poor start. But the win moved the Eagles to 5-3, was the club's fifth victory in the last six games, and McNabb seems to be warming up now for the stretch run over the next two months.
Comments elicited from two AFC scouts:
"The Dolphins are paying a steep price now for not taking care of the left (offensive) tackle position in the offseason. (Rookie Wade) Smith was abused by Dwight Freeney on Sunday and the coaches didn't give him a lot of help. Miami made a weak effort, really, to fix what was supposed to have been a priority position for them after 2003. Why they thought they might be able to just patch it again with (Mark) Dixon is beyond me. Dixon was a good left guard but just a decent player at tackle. Plus he's always hurt. I mean, he's probably going on I.R. this week with that bad ankle of his and he might never play again."
"There is no way in hell, if Dave McGinnis wants to save his butt (with the Cardinals), that he puts Emmitt Smith back in the lineup when he's healthy. (Marcel) Shipp has over 300 yards the last two weeks, running behind the same line, using all the same plays. Smith is, pretty simply, just done. Shipp is the better back and a guy with whom Dave might steal a few more much-needed wins."
"(San Diego) wide receiver David Boston is back to 'dogging' patterns again. Of course, it doesn't help him that (Drew) Brees is stinking the joint out right now, either. I wouldn't be too surprised if Marty (Schottenheimer) started Doug Flutie next week, just for a change-up, you know?"
"I told you before that (New Orleans defensive end Willie) Whitehead is a nice fifth lineman to have around. He had three sacks Sunday against the Bucs, always plays with high energy, and can give you snaps at end or tackle. He's had to start because of the injury to (end Darren) Howard, and that has worn him down some, but teams should have snatched him up in free agency this spring."
"If the Ravens people were really honest, they would admit that they'd prefer having (Byron) Leftwich over quarterback (Kyle) Boller. And, of course, they all but had Leftwich on draft day, but couldn't complete the trade (with Minnesota) before the clock expired. But on Sunday, the Ravens used their knowledge of Leftwich to help beat him. By the way, (Leftwich) has 14 turnovers now in the last five games. He's a little too cocky about dangling the ball around, and he better learn to protect the thing a lot better than he does now."
"The Seattle coaches really are stumped at why (rookie free safety Ken) Hamlin is making so many mental botches now. They replaced him with Damien Robinson on Sunday and are hoping some time on the bench will help clear his head."
"(Falcons owner) Arthur Blank still has his eyes on Rich McKay (Tampa Bay general manager) to run the football operation for him. He was the top guy on Blank's wish list a year ago and, given how miserable Jon Gruden is making things, maybe Blank can come up with a way to get his man."
"(Green Bay defensive coordinator) Ed Donatell has really increased his blitz percentage this year, since he can't get any pass rush out of his front four, and he did a pretty nice job Sunday night of confusing (Daunte) Culpepper. By the way, losing two in a row at home could be real confidence-denter for the Vikings, since they feel almost invincible there."
Heard in the pressbox
The Miami coaches are concerned that tailback Ricky Williams is out of gas already at the midway point of the season. Williams doesn't have the explosiveness or "long speed' he exhibited in 2002. Part of it is the poor offensive line behind which he's running, plus the offense is terribly predictable. But he isn't breaking many tackles and, on a couple of occasions Sunday when he appeared headed for a significant gain, an Indianapolis corner would knock him off his feet with an arm-tackle. Williams had just 11 runs for losses out of his 383 rushing attempts in 2002. He already has 24 negative rushes this year. And it was notable that he got only two rushes in the second half of Sunday's game ... The Dolphins will audition at least two offensive linemen, both with experience playing left tackle, early this week. Neither of them will be former Dolphins star Richmond Webb, released this spring by Cincinnati, and still trolling for work. Webb will work out this week, however, for Tampa Bay as the Bucs are seeking an experienced backup tackle. ... Dallas owner Jerry Jones is thinking about sending both his backup quarterbacks, Chad Hutchinson and rookie Tony Romo, to the NFL Europe league this spring. Hutchinson is said to be balking at the idea. ... Even though Oliver Luck won't be coming aboard as the new club president of the Tennessee Titans, the man who currently holds the post, Jeff Diamond, won't be staying beyond 2003. Diamond is workout out the one-year extension he signed and then he's gone. No word yet as to who will assume most of his administrative responsibilities. ... As bad as things seem on the surface in Oakland, they are even worse in reality. There's plenty of sniping going on and (coach) Bill Callahan really better watch his back. ... Buffalo will activate (tailback) Willis McGahee from the physically unable to perform list this week and he'll play at Dallas on Sunday. ... Tampa coach Jon Gruden is actually thinking about calling (tailback) Ricky Watters, who didn't play in 2002, to see if he might consider working out. ... The demise of the Steelers will mean some salary cap casualties, like linebacker Jason Gildon, in the offseason.
As has become their newest wont, the Saints busted Tampa Bay again on Sunday afternoon, something they accomplished twice in 2002 against the Super Bowl champions. New Orleans absolutely owns the Bucs and, if the Saints played every week with the same passion they demonstrate every time they see an opponent dressed in pewter (or, P-U-ter, given the lack of consistency Tampa Bay has exhibited in a year when it has yet to win consecutive outings), they would be a tough team to beat.
Actually, of late, the Saints generally haven't been the same patsies they were earlier in the season. Since their 55-21 loss to Indianapolis on Sept. 28, when the Superdome required fumigating even more than some Bourbon Street suds joints, the Saints have won three of five games. Yeah, we know, not all that impressive. But both of the defeats were against Carolina, each of the two contests was winnable, and the Saints would have beaten the Panthers in overtime two weeks ago had tight end Ernie Conwell simply sealed defensive end Julius Peppers on a fourth-and-inches gamble by coach Jim Haslett.
The NFL has actually apologized to the Saints for three botched officiating calls in that emotion-wrenching overtime loss but, as much as we like the New Orleans folks, we're not going to commiserate. Fact is, the pitiful officiating or not, the Saints should have beaten the Panthers in their second divisional matchup of the year.
But all of that is water, or Mississippi River bilge, under the bridge. What lies ahead for Haslett and his team, a bunch left for dead only a few weeks ago, is opportunity. Would the Saints be far better off had they bested the Panthers two weeks ago? You betcha. Adjust the records of the two clubs to reflect a New Orleans victory in a loss Haslett called the toughest of his career, and the Saints would be 5-4 and the Panthers 5-3, just a half-game differential. Reverse the outcome of that game and Carolina would be in the midst of a three-game losing streak, reeling, and facing an ominous schedule.
But the Saints can't concern themselves with what might have been and instead must focus on what still can transpire in 2003. After next Sunday's bye, the Saints resume play, renewing the annual bloodletting with the Falcons in The Big Easy, and play four of the final seven games at home. The road games are at Philadelphia, Washington and Jacksonville, not exactly fearsome.
The coming off-week will provide some of New Orleans' wounded a little more time to heal. One of the NFL's most potentially explosive offenses is starting to shows signs of life and tailback Deuce McAllister is re-establishing himself as a true all-around star. Enigmatic quarterback Aaron Brooks has settled down. The defense will soon get some starters, like right end Darren Howard, back onto the field.
New Orleans has folded in December each of the last two seasons. Maybe this is the year, huh, that the Saints get as hot as industrial-strength Tabasco sauce at the end of the year?
Put the thumb of your throwing hand on the basement work bench, lift a sledge hammer, and then bring it down on your opposable joint. Now you know how Brett Favre probably felt going into Sunday night's game at the dread Metrodome, his personal house of horrors. Whether or not Favre can rally the Packers over the second half of the season remains to be seen. But the Green Bay 2003 season, for all intents and purposes, would essentially have ended on Sunday evening minus a victory.
By posting a win for only the third time in his dozen appearances in The Twin Cities, by starting his 181st contest in a row, Favre has at least resuscitated his club for now. Instead of being four games behind the Vikings in the division, Green Bay trails but two games. If the season ended today, Green Bay would not qualify for the playoffs, but the campaign still has eight weeks to go. That is sufficient time for coach Mike Sherman to get his team on some sort of streak and to make a run for a postseason berth.
If you don't admire Favre, don't understand how lucky we all are to have witnessed the career of a man whose career has embodied the term "competitor," then you'd better check your pulse.
It might be increasingly a coach's league but, for most of the NFL's newest signal-callers, well, they've been out of their league. There are five coaches who are in their first year with their respective teams in 2003 and their aggregate record is 16-25.
Bill Parcells of Dallas, who has now led the Cowboys to more victories than they posted in any of the three previous campaigns, accounts for six of those 16 wins. Parcells might not be the most loveable guy around, but the man is more flexible than he is credited with being. That's obvious in the manner he has adjusted to a Dallas defense that is worlds removed from the kind of unit he prefers. And, even though we know that this is getting redundant, any coach who can win six of eight games with Quincy Carter as his quarterback has to be pretty special.
None of the other new coaches has even a break-even record. Sure, Marvin Lewis has provided some much-needed order, not to mention a sense of accountability, in Cincinnati. But how does one explain the Bengals' loss at Arizona on Sunday afternoon? Dennis Erickson is 4-5 in San Francisco but the 49ers will look schizoid. Jack Del Rio has suffered some painful moments -- none of them as hurtful as the self-inflicted wound to punter Chris Hanson because of the silly stump-and-ax motivational ploy by the coach -- in Jacksonville. And Steve Mariucci, well, he'd have a more representative roster in Detroit if he assembled an all-star team from all the Michigan college programs.
The second-year head coaches in the NFL aren't doing a lot better, with a combined 32-32 mark, and four of the group of eight are sporting losing records. Worse, three of the second-year head coaches -- Steve Spurrier of Washington, Marty Schottenheimer of San Diego and the Oakland Raiders' Bill Callahan -- could be headed to the unemployment line.
Spurrier's days numbered
Yep, we said Spurrier, a coach we predicted last year would eventually be successful in the NFL. OK, we're convinced now that "eventually" will never come for The Ol' Ball Coach. Give him a 10-year contract at $5 million annually and it wouldn't matter. If it's true Snyder dialed up Jimmy Johnson this week, to ask him how he made the transition from college to the NFL, that doesn't bode well for Spurrier. The guy is toast. Ditto the Fun-'N'-Gun offense. Once again we got suckered in and maybe, as my lovely wife has suggested, I'll now quit insisting that gimmicky, lopsided offenses can win at the NFL level. I'm the same idiot, she reminded me the other day, who felt June Jones could make the run-and-shoot a viable entity in the pro game. This time around, I'm screaming "Uncle!" long before I get that emotionally invested in an off-beat offense again.
Spurrier's days are numbered. Lucky for him, so is his remaining salary, to the tune of $15 million over the final three seasons of his contract. Even if he lets Skins owner Dan Snyder off the hook, reaching a settlement for maybe half of what is due him, that's a heck of a lot of green's fees. Here's hoping that, on his way out the door, whether it's in the next few weeks or at the end of the year, Spurrier makes some kind of donation to the Patrick Ramsey mental rehabilitation fund. The second-year quarterback is going to need some couch time with a top shrink, about the only way that he is going to recover from the shell-shocked experience through which he is currently suffering.
The Washington coaches had two weeks to prepare for Sunday's matchup at Dallas, two weeks to put in a pass protection scheme with more consistency than oatmeal, and they failed miserably. It's amazing that Ramsey, who has failed to finish three of the last four games, could even walk off the field following Sunday's defeat at Texas Stadium. If it's possible for a quarterback to suffer from being punch-drunk, Ramsey qualifies, and one has to wonder how much longer he can take it. The Cowboys blitzed like crazy Sunday, getting all four sacks from linebackers and safeties, and the Redskins appeared to still be confused by all the permutations.
If that was "max" protection, as Spurrier insisted, it had minimum effectiveness. Ramsey has a fractured finger on his left hand. At this rate, now having been sacked 26 times, the talented but tortured kid soon will be in a body cast.
Smart move Tony
Here's why Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy is so darned smart: After his club's victory at Miami on Sunday, he was asked to revisit the thought process that went into the decision to select defensive end Dwight Freeney with the 11th overall choice in the 2002 draft. Inquiring minds wanted to know, of course, because Freeney had three sacks in the 23-17 win, and forced an intentional grounding call. He also forced two fumbles and had five tackles. Dolphins quarterback Brian Griese wore Freeney like a hair suit all day, and rookie left offensive tackle Wade Smith got spun around like a turnstile. Name the move and Freeney abused Smith with it. But we digress.
Much of the rationale for choosing Freeney much higher than most teams had him rated in 2002, Dungy patiently explained, was because the Colts offense was so very good. Huh? Yeah, the Indianapolis coach figured that, with his offense, he would play a lot of games from out in front. And if the opposition was forced to consistently play from behind, often by double digits, it would have to abandon the run and throw the ball. That would precipitate plenty of pass-rush opportunities and, despite his lack of bulk, Freeney is a pure edge rusher.
Convoluted? Maybe. But also brilliant. Plus the former Syracuse star simply fits well with the Dungy defensive scheme, a blueprint that puts a premium on quickness, and stresses the ability to close on the ball.
Future still foggy
We don't buy into all the rhetoric that the Chicago Bears might actually have some hope for the future just because they have a plethora of first- and second-year players performing well right now.
We don't buy it because, after all, you still better have a quarterback in this league. And while the venerable Chris Chandler has played well in winning two of three starts (the Bears are converting 45 percent of their third-down plays under his guidance, after converting roughly 25 percent of their chances with allegedly more mobile Kordell Stewart running the offense), there still is no read on how first-round quarterback Rex Grossman will develop.
Grossman, not Chandler, represents the future. So no matter how productive this Chicago kiddie korps has been in recent weeks, the big question mark is still hanging out there: Can Grossman play? It's good that fans of Da Bears are getting to cheer a little. But playing Chandler gets Chicago no closer to a gauging Grossman's goods. So as coach Dick Jauron continues to develop youngsters for the guy who will succeed him in 2004, what's still missing is Grossman's development, and management might consider strongly suggesting that the staff give the former Florida Gators star some PT. And soon.
The 224 yards that Bears quarterback Chris Chandler had Sunday might not seem like much, but it's the first time the veteran has gone for over 200 yards since December of 2001, when he was with the Falcons.
Journeyman quarterback Jeff Blake, who always felt mistreated in Cincinnati, is now 3-0 in starts against the Bengals. In those three games, Blake has five touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Washington can't seem to get the ball anymore to wide receiver Laveranues Coles. He opened the year with three straight games of 100-plus yards. In the last four contests, he has been held to 62 yards or less.
Houston tailback Domanick Davis was precluded by a chest injury from breaking a record Sunday. The fourth-rounder could have become the first player in league history to rush for 100 yards in his first three starts. He had 74 yards in the third quarter before exiting the game.
Giants strongside linebacker Brandon Short had a career day in Sunday's overtime win versus the Jets, with 14 tackles, one sack and a pair of forced fumbles.
The Detroit Lions are so beat up at cornerback that on Sunday they had to start two players, Otis Smith and Doug Evans, who weren't even with the team in camp. Smith was signed a month ago and the Lions added Evans just last week.
Falcons starting left offensive tackle Bob Whitfield is all but certain to miss the rest of the season with a broken right fibula and ligament damage to the ankle joint.
Jets wide receiver Santana Moss has touchdown catches in four straight games now. Over the last three contests, Moss has 21 receptions, 328 yards and five touchdowns.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.