Regular visitors to "The Morning After," all dozen or so of you, probably realize by now that we are avid Mike Martz fans. Sure, we know the St. Louis coach takes a lot of hits for his game management, his reluctance to run the ball at times, his stubbornness in defending his occasionally dubious play selection. But once in a while, in that fertile mind of his, Martz actually cuts through all the pretty offensive permutations, turns back the ol' clock, and finds a page from the past that is to his liking.
Troy Hambrick, Cowboys RB
His reign as the Dallas Cowboys' starting tailback could be short-lived, since it's pretty widely assumed that coach Bill Parcells will upgrade the position in 2004, so let's give Troy Hambrick some props for his performance in Sunday's victory at Washington. With the Cowboys coming off consecutive defeats, and Parcells suggesting his team would not recover psychologically from a third straight loss, Hambrick provided most of the offense in the rain and muck of FedEx Field. He had career highs for rushes (33) and for rushing yards (189), and his only failure was not getting into the end zone. On a day when Quincy Carter was again sporadic, and when the elements mandated simplicity, Hambrick was the Dallas go-to guy. The Cowboys now have nine victories and no one, probably not even Parcells or owner Jerry Jones, would have thought that possible when the team was in training camp. Hambrick has 910 rushing yards and, in his first (and maybe only) season as the starter, is all but certain to go over the 1,000-yard mark.
Comments elicited from one AFC college scout and one NFC pro scout:
"He might not break the bank, at least not to the extent he will want to, but a guy we like already in free agency is (Seattle wide receiver) Darrell Jackson. Since he isn't the classic 'lead' receiver, there's only so much any team will pay him, including us, even though he is near the top of our (unrestricted) list. But he is very good, has some surprising speed, and he makes plays. Yeah, I know all about all those (dropped passes) this year, and you can't ignore that. But he is very quietly over 1,000 yards for the year, which many people might not realize, and in the last four games (26 catches, 423 yards, five touchdowns), he has been something else."
"(New England offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis really deserves a shot at one of the coming head coaching openings. He's more creative then he ever gets credit for and he's upgraded that passing game, even though he's mostly worked with a lot of kids. Their tight end, (Daniel) Graham, is a good example of how Weis will make a guy better. Graham wasn't very good last season, still isn't a great two-way tight end, but has become a real factor in the Patriots' passing game."
"Even though Jon Gruden already has one of the top offensive line coaches in the league, I'm hearing he could bring Bill Callahan to Tampa Bay next year, assuming he's fired by the Raiders. Then again, as bad as the Bucs line is, maybe they need two coaches as good as Muir and Callahan to get that bunch straightened out."
"Boy, nice move by (offensive line coach) Kim Helton in Washington, huh? The media gives him a chance to talk about how the line has improved recently, and how does he respond, huh? He tells people the line isn't really playing much better, but that the backup quarterback (Tim Hasselbeck) has made a difference. Talk about professional suicide. Basically, the guy ripped (injured) starter Patrick Ramsey, who clearly is the No. 1 guy and a player who is respected in the Redskins locker room and around the league. So what's the difference between Ramsey and Helton? Well, the first will be back in Washington in 2004 and Helton won't be. The only thing that can save him is that (Steve) Spurrier's contract gives him control over the staffing and maybe he would fight (owner) Dan Snyder on some things. But then again, Spurrier essentially fired Helton once already this year."
"If I'm (Vikings coach) Mike Tice, I might consider jumping off a bridge. His punter blows a play Sunday by dropping a snap. And then (quarterback Daunte) Culpepper throws a 'pick' in the end zone at the end of the game, in a situation where you've got a sure-fire field goal to send the thing into overtime. Yeah, the Bears defender (cornerback Charles Tillman) made a heck of a play to take the ball away from Randy Moss. But, look, the quarterback has to put the ball where either Moss catches it or no one does."
"I really like (Houston head coach) Dom Capers, but what ever happened to all that (talk) about how his defensive scheme would create a lot of sack opportunities? I mean, they've got just 18 sacks in 14 games, and no player has more than four (sacks). Hey, schemes are great, but you still need players who can make plays, and all those linebackers they brought there to sack the quarterback are not getting the job done."
"I continue to be amazed by the receiving skills of (San Diego tailback LaDainian) Tomlinson. The guy never had to catch the ball at TCU. He's a great example at working to make yourself better at a key skill. He's had 20 catches for about 300 yards (actually 292 yards) the last two weeks. And he's had four scores as a receiver in those games. The guy is extraordinary."
"I watched the end of the Rams game on Sunday and was sick. The guy in their secondary who kept making plays was (journeyman safety Rich) Coady. You know what? I've always liked that guy as kind of a 'dime' player and special teams guy. But my coaches don't like him at all. To me, he's one of those spare parts you like to have around. I just can't sell our staff on him."
"Even though Oakland won on Sunday, it looks like (coach Bill) Callahan is gone. The best thing Al Davis could do, which means he won't do it, is get away from this idea of hiring inexperienced guys, coaches who have never been the top dog and are beholden to him. He ought to quit dancing around that old flirtation with Denny Green and hire the guy. He'd have the Raiders back in the playoffs pretty quickly. Sure, there's a ton of age on that roster, but there are some young guys who can play. Green is the best guy out there. The teams who are scared of him, like Atlanta from what I hear, are crazy."
Heard on the grapevine
Every year, during the so-called "hiring and firing season," there is a surprise dismissal of a head coach. Last year, it was the exit of Steve Mariucci in San Francisco that surprised a lot of observers. This season's possible "surprise" guy? It could be Mike Holmgren of Seattle, which continued its road struggles in Sunday's defeat at St. Louis, a shortcoming that could well keep the Seahawks out of the playoffs. Holmgren surrendered his general manager duties this spring, did a terrific job early on in focusing on what he does best, but could miss the postseason play for the fourth time in five seasons. ... Don't discount Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders as a big-time candidate for the opening at the University of Nebraska. If you're into connecting the dots, Saunders' daughter played soccer at Nebraska, graduating a couple years ago. But beyond that, there are a ton of rumors in the coaching fraternity that Saunders could be the guy for the Cornhuskers. The new athletic director, Steve Pederson, is laying low. But he's told some confidants that, if he gets the guy he wants, it will be worth the wait. Of course, if Saunders is now the top candidate, Nebraska might have to wait a while, if the Chiefs go deep into the playoffs. ... Jets coach Herm Edwards desperately wants to get defensive line coach Rod Marinelli away from the Bucs to serve as his coordinator in 2004. There are also rumblings that, even if New York rallies to finish 8-8 (a remarkable feat, given the wrist injury to Chad Pennington, and the club's poor start), someone in the front office could be made out to be a scapegoat. And that someone, the whispers insist, is not general manager Terry Bradway. ... The Ravens have $22 million in cap room for next season, and that should be more than enough to allow Baltimore to retain its pending five unrestricted free agents (including star cornerback Chris McAlister), and do a little shopping as well. Near the top of the Ravens' free agent wish list ought to be a big-time wide receiver. It's remarkable the Ravens have gotten this far without an impact wideout. ... Houston salary cap expert Dan Ferens may depart the Texans at the end of the season. ... Although team officials deny it, New York Giants coach Jim Fassel has been apprised he won't be back in 2004. Don't be surprised if Fassel resurfaces in Arizona, where good guy Dave McGinnis is a goner. The Cardinals are also said to be looking at Kirk Ferentz of Iowa. ... In the ever-changing world of Dick Jauron, the pendulum may have swung back his way again on Sunday, with the Bears' victory over Minnesota. It looks like Jauron still has an outside chance of salvaging his job, but would have to make some staffing changes, and those likely would include dumping offensive coordinator John Shoop. ... Given his recent strong performance since replacing Michael Pittman as the starter, several teams now have Tampa Bay tailback Thomas Jones on their radar for free agency. The onetime first-round flop has played well and will make some team a dependable backup, probably at a reasonable price, once he hits the free agent market.
And in the final minutes of the Rams' 27-22 victory over Seattle, a win that locked up the division title for St. Louis, that is precisely what occurred. Protecting a slim lead, backed up to his own 15-yard line and with the clock just under six minutes, Martz went old-school on us. He pounded tailback Marshall Faulk into the line time and again, bleeding most of the time off the scoreboard and getting Jeff Wilkins into position for a field goal.
Faulk touched the ball nine straight times, eight rushes for 51 yards, one reception for six yards. It was reminiscent, at least to us, of the opening drive of the second half during the NFC championship game in '01. Trailing the Philadelphia Eagles by a 17-13 count at halftime, the Rams came out in the third quarter and muscled up on the Eagles, with Martz calling seven straight runs for his tailback. It was about as conventional as some people feel Martz ever gets. But for the coach who bristles when it is suggested his team is soft, or that the offense is strictly a finesse design, it allowed he and his team to establish a key mindset.
Granted, in the ensuing Super Bowl loss to New England, Martz didn't turn to the running game, or to Faulk, nearly enough. But when the planets are aligned in appropriate order, when Martz wants to make a statement or merely be pragmatic, he will use the deceptively strong Faulk to hammer home a message.
"Most people just don't understand how strong (Faulk) really is," said Seattle middle linebacker Randall Godfrey. "So what if he isn't 225 (pounds)? He can still wear you down."
Faulk had a streak of 100-yard rushing games snapped at three but saved his best until last. And Martz saved his best play-calls until the end, as well, the move paying off handsomely. It is widely assumed that home-field advantage through the NFC bracket is critical to the Rams, since no one feels the league's hot-house tomatoes can win outside when weather is a factor. That might, indeed, be the case. But on Sunday, with the game on the line, the Rams started warming up for the potential of having to venture outdoors. With Faulk back healthy again, and the St. Louis offensive line unit more capable than in the past of knocking defenders off the ball, maybe the Rams will surprise some teams with a bit of toughness. They certainly surprised the Seahawks, maybe themselves, too, with a display of grinder's grit on Sunday afternoon.
There are six teams in the NFL with double-digit victories at this point and, not too surprisingly, the cumulative road record for those franchises is 29-12. None of them has a losing record away from home and two of the teams have just one road defeat each. Win on the road in the NFL, even split your road schedule, and chances of success are great.
This is significant because some of the teams on the cusp of desperation now have not followed the league's "Road Rule," which, simply stated, goes something like this: Win on the road, and you rule, dude. Seattle and San Francisco are a combined, and woeful, 1-13 away from home. The sputtering Minnesota Vikings, now tied with Green Bay for the division lead, after everyone was prepared to award them the NFC North by default after the first six weeks of the season, are 3-4 out of the Metrodome. The Baltimore Ravens, who fell into a tie with Cincinnati by virtue of their Sunday loss at Oakland, have now lost four straight road contests.
If there is one compelling element to watch in the final two weeks of the season, beyond who can survive a road trip, it is the teams already out of contention who might revel in playing the spoilers' role. Right at the top of the heap is Cleveland, which certainly will help determine the AFC North, since the Browns host the Ravens next Sunday, then play at Cincinnati in the Dec. 28 season finale. The resurgent Jets play New England on Saturday, and can help determine if the Pats hold on for home-field advantage. Then the Jets are at Miami in the finale, a game the Dolphins may need to win to squeeze into the playoffs. An Arizona team that dug deep on Sunday and found some fortitude, still must play Seattle and Minnesota, two flagging clubs. The 49ers are at Philadelphia and host Seattle. "Still something to play for," said Jeff Garcia, who threw for 344 yards in San Francisco's loss at Cincinnati on Sunday. "There is still a lot of motivation out there."
Tough day for Vick
Sometimes you make an impact with your deeds and, on other occasions, you merit kudos with your words. In the case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, well, count Sunday as an 0-for-2 day, all right? Electrifying last Sunday night, in his first start since fracturing his right fibula during the first quarter of the second preseason tilt, Vick was more stupefying this week against the Indianapolis Colts defense.
Any of the several potential head coaching candidates who are lusting after the Falcons vacancy certainly must wonder what kind of roller coaster they could be boarding if they take on the job of trying to bring consistency to a franchise that has never in its 38-year existence posted consecutive winning campaigns. And, as well, to turning Vick into a consistent passer, one who isn't nearly as scatter-armed, and who gains at least a measure of pocket presence. Vick totaled 77 yards on Sunday. On the ground alone last week, he had nearly double that. But it could be what Vick said before the game against the Colts, rather than what he did in a shoddy performance, that ought to be of concern to Atlanta head coach wanna-bes.
In an interview on ESPN, Vick indicated that he will indeed play some role in deciding who should supplant the exiled Dan Reeves. Say what? If that is the case -- and, hey, it could be just the latest example of Vick just allowing his mouth to override his brain -- any of the coaching candidates who heard that contention likely cringed. There is a perception, accurate or not, that Vick helped grease the skids for Reeves' departure. The last thing that owner Arthur Blank and new general manager Rich McKay need is the specter of Vick thumbing through coaching résumés, figuring out who best fits his personal agenda, and who most dovetails with his sense of how the Falcons offense should be designed.
Think about this possibility: Anyone with an offensive paradigm that doesn't include a lot of bootlegs, or a playbook that assumes the quarterback should be able to complete a timing pass (unless you live in Atlanta, you've seen the ol' drop, plant, pass, trilogy, we assume), need not apply. There is enough fear among some coaching candidates that the Atlanta front office kitchen, even with the very organized McKay running the show, will feature too many chefs. Most coaches prefer a streamlined management style. In Atlanta, things could be top-heavy, and a coach might feel answerable to too many bosses. In fact, over the weekend, we spoke to three guys who figure to be in the mix for the Falcons job. Two of them queried us as to how the team's tiered approach, with Blank wanting corporate-type tiers of responsibilities, will work. Or, more accurately, they asked if it will work.
Given those concerns, the last thing Blank and McKay need is the possibility that Vick will be a significant part of the process over the next month, the potential that he will have viable clout. Some coaches realize that there is a special relationship between the quarterback and the owner -- still fresh in their minds is the picture of Blank chauffeuring Vick around Texas Stadium in a wheel chair before the regular-season opener -- but no one is going to pander to the player the way they feel Blank has at times.
To his credit, Blank is not as involved in the football matters as some suggest he is, and his intentions are always well-founded. But Blank is insistent on maintaining an open-door policy with his players, and that will close the door to some highly-regarded candidates. "Look, like it or not, some players are treated a little differently, and that's the case almost everywhere," said one potential candidate. "But I would never take a job where people thought a player helped make the call on me, and where that player made me feel beholden to him. That's just (horsefeathers), you know?"
Of course, no one knows if that will be the case, since Vick's mouth is quicker at times than his feet. It may just be impressionable youth taking over. If that is the case, Blank and McKay might want to have their quarterback clarify his remarks, or do so themselves. Oh, yeah, if Vick is the game's most electrifying player in the league, what's that make Peyton Manning, who kind of outplayed the Falcons star by a little on Sunday afternoon? Uh, how about simply the best player in the NFL, huh? Hard to believe that a guy can do the things on the field that Manning does and who is so taken for granted. As for Vick, he might want to worry more about getting his team into the end zone and less about being caught with his foot in his mouth.
The search is on
It's not official and, Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe will continue to toe the party line, which is that coach Gregg Williams won't be evaluated until after the last game of the season. But start the search in Buffalo, folks, because Williams, a good guy who had to make the playoffs to survive, is a goner.
Ironic, isn't it, that the Bills last year had a great offense and a crummy defense. And so Donahoe sacrificed on offense a bit, like with the trade of wide receiver Peerless Price to Atlanta, to help free up money to fix the defense. The result: The defense is excellent, ranking among the top five in the league in most key categories, and the offense is horrid. Some of the demise of the offense can be traced to the poor season quarterback Drew Bledsoe is having and, for sure, he looks like age is beginning to catch up to him some.
But coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who felt like he had lost too much on that side of the ball with the departures of Price and tight end Jay Riemersma, never really adjusted to the style everyone wanted, which was to feature more of tailback Travis Henry, who is coming off a breakout campaign.
Yep, Donahoe is a close friend, so let's get that preface out in front and let our critics have at us. But those who suggest Donahoe overestimated the talent of the Bills aren't exactly looking at the team through objective glasses. The league is one of tradeoffs now. You rob from Peter to pay Paul once in a while. Buffalo was top-heavy with offensive playmakers. So the goal was to cut back a bit on that side of the ball and bolster the defense. Well, at least the second part of the equation worked. This defense can flat-out play. But the offense just couldn't compensate and failed to make do with the parts it has.
The offensive coaches said a lot of the right things in camp, acknowledged they would have to enact some big changes, agreed it was in the best overall interests of the team. But when push came to shove, they bristled at being asked to get things done with younger players, to maintain a solid unit with some missing parts. One thing Donahoe won't do this time around, you can bet, is to hire a guy who doesn't have previous head coaching experience.
Defense still a concern in K.C.
When a team wins by four touchdowns, thrashes an opponent the way Kansas City did to Detroit, you hate to look for warts. And, honest, we get enough vitriolic e-mail from the legion of loyal Chiefs fans that we do our best not to incite that acidic army. But even in dominating Sunday's game, the Chiefs continued to display a run defense that remains way too generous at this juncture of the campaign.
The only good news for the Chiefs run defense was that the 30th-ranked unit held the Lions under the 146.2-yard average Kansas City normally allows. But the bad news is that Detroit, which was dead last in the league in rushing, went for 137 yards. The Lions, who hadn't had an individual 100-yard rusher in 13 months, got 105 yards from tailback Shawn Bryson. His best output this year, prior to Sunday, was 73 yards.
As noted here before (only about a zillion times), you win in the NFL at this time of the season, by running the football and stopping the run. The Chiefs have got the first half of the equation but can't seem to handle the second part of the old tried and true formula. Kansas City is very athletic upfront, chases the ball well, but just isn't very big. In the last five games, during which the Chiefs are only 3-2, their defense has surrendered an average of 186.4 rushing yards, including two contests in which it allowed 200 yards or more. The unit has given up an average of 26.8 points in that span, and held only the Lions under 24 points. In the five-game stretch, Kansas City has just five takeaways and six sacks.
Volek lifts Titans
With the ailing Steve McNair sidelined by an ankle injury -- and you know that when this warrior doesn't play, he's really hurting, folks -- someone had to step into the breach for the floundering Tennessee Titans, right? OK, so you figure we're going to tout backup quarterback Billy Volek who, in his first regular-season start, threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for one score.
Good guess. But wrong. He comes a little later in this item. In a week when coach Jeff Fisher not only needed steady play at quarterback, but also some semblance of order on special teams, after a loss to Indianapolis last week in which the Titans coughed up three fumbles in the return game, the first nod instead goes to wide receiver Derrick Mason. The seven-year veteran had nine catches for 137 yards, pushing him over the 1,000-yard mark for a third consecutive year, not bad for a guy viewed earlier in his career as just a functional wideout. But he also returned five kickoffs for 106 yards and five punts for 59 yards. And, most important, without a bobble. For the day, Mason had 302 yards on 19 "touches," an impressive average of 15.9 yards every time he had the ball in his hands.
The Titans rallied against Buffalo, avoided a third straight defeat, and stayed within hailing distance of Indianapolis, although the Colts have all but wrapped up the division title. They owe much of that to Mason, who is an incredibly versatile, but perennially an underrated, big-time performer.
As for Volek, the former undrafted free agent from Fresno State is a gamer, no doubt about it. General manager Floyd Reese had better get Volek signed to a contract extension, a tough haul given the Titans usually tight salary cap situation, because a lot of teams are going to want to sign him as at least a No. 2 guy in the spring, when he is an unrestricted free agent. Kudos, too, to coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who didn't scale back the playbook once it was known McNair was not going to start. Right from the outset, Heimerdinger was aggressive, and he let Volek throw on his first three snaps, without worrying about the youngster's anxiety level.
One area about which the Titans might be concerned, though, is the interior of their offensive line. The Bills tackle tandem of Sam Adams and Pat Williams pretty much manhandled the Tennessee inside three all day long.
That one-game hiatus, a week in the unemployment line for New England punter Ken Walter, must have worked well. Released two weeks ago, Walter was re-signed by the Pats last week after the Pats coaches realized that rookie Brooks Barnard wasn't the answer, either. In his return, Walter actually had a better net average (40.5 yards) than he had gross yards (40.3) against Jacksonville on Sunday, and he killed three of four punts inside the Jaguars' 20-yard line.
Detroit's loss at Kansas City means the Lions now share, with the old Houston Oilers, the NFL record for most consecutive road losses, with 23.
He remains one of the NFL's best, if underrated, linebackers. But a tip of the hat to Keith Bulluck of Tennessee, who authored the signature, game-altering play in his club's Sunday victory over Buffalo. With the Bills leading 17-7, Bulluck stripped Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe on a sack, forcing the fumble and recovering it, a turnover that led to a touchdown and signaled the Tennessee rally. The former first-rounder chalked up nine tackles as well.
Tailback Curtis Martin of the Jets went over the 1,000-yard mark again, making him only the second player in league history to achieve that milestone for at least nine straight seasons at the outset of a career. Barry Sanders rushed for 1,000 or more yards in each of his first 10 seasons.
Peyton Manning of Indianapolis became just the fifth quarterback in NFL history to have two five-touchdown pass contests in a season.
On Friday, in the weekly "Tip Sheet" column, we noted some of the safeties having standout 2003 seasons and somehow forgot about Adam Archuleta of the Rams. The three-year veteran isn't a big interception guy, so he doesn't draw much attention to himself, but there are few bigger hitters at his position. And he seems to make a really big play every week now. Archuleta had nine tackles on Sunday, along with his fifth sack of the season, the most among defensive backs.
The Chiefs continue to use Dante Hall as a third or fourth wide receiver and he continues to make plays. He had just one catch on Sunday but it was for 38 yards.
Chicago defensive end Alex Brown, who had a couple sacks versus the Vikings, continues to play extremely well.
Houston has generated a paltry 231 yards in the two games No. 3 quarterback Dave Ragone has started.
The count on different quarterback starters leaguewide now, with four guys getting their first start of the season this weekend, is up to 56. There are now five teams that have used three different starters.