During his 2002 rookie season, Josh McCown threw just 18 passes for the Arizona Cardinals, playing sparingly as Jake Plummer started all 16 games. In 2003, McCown started the final three games of the campaign, logging 166 attempts, and authoring the unforgettable last-play touchdown pass to Nathan Poole that knocked the Minnesota Vikings from the playoff field.
And now in 2004, according to projections, McCown will lead the Cardinals to their first playoff berth since 1998, right?
OK, we know the exponential improvement from four victories in 2003 to a postseason invitation in 2004 pretty much defines the term "quantum leap." We understand that, his stirring finish to 2003 aside, McCown still counts only three regular-season starts on his resume. And for now, with this week's summary dismissal of Jeff Blake, the Cards have no veteran safety net for the former third-rounder from Sam Houston State.
But before you send for the guys with the white jackets, and make reservations for us in a room with padded walls, consider what McCown does having going for him this season: Dennis Green.
In abruptly dispatching Blake, and naming McCown the new Arizona starter going into camp, Green essentially anointed the two-year veteran as his latest pet project. History has indicated that isn't such a bad thing. Green spent a decade in Minnesota basically playing quarterback roulette, often placing more faith in his offensive machine than in the person at the controls of it, and the results, of course, were impressive.
Green took the Vikings to the playoffs eight times in 10 seasons. The more remarkable part of that record: He did it with seven different starting quarterbacks. In fact, during the stretch from 1997-2000, in which the Vikings advanced to the playoffs all four seasons and twice progressed to the NFC championship game, they never had the same starter in any of those years.
The quarterback revolving door spun out Brad Johnson and replaced him with Randall Cunningham. Cunningham was replaced with Jeff George, and then supplanting him was Daunte Culpepper. In a league where stability at the quarterback position is thought to be paramount to success, Green was the polar antithesis, essentially thumbing his nose at convention, but still stamping a playoff ticket nearly every season.
The surprising move to jettison Blake this week, and to elevate the callow McCown to the top the of the depth chart, isn't the first such gamble of Green's coaching career. He has released quarterbacks in the past, rather than meet their contract demands, and always found a replacement and a way to win. He has benched starters for incompetence, gone to the No. 2 guy, and continually gone to the playoffs.
Just once in Green's 10 years in Minnesota did the Vikings offense finish lower than 12th statistically. Six times the offense ranked statistically in the top 10 and it was rated fifth or higher in five of those seasons.
In sum, Green knows quarterbacks and, more important, he knows how to win. The fans in The Valley of the Sun, all 25,000 or so of them (that's roughly how many show up for most Cardinals home games), might have been slightly taken aback by the decision to dump Blake, a veteran with a big ego who would not have handled a demotion very well. Those fans would do well to note Green's track record with such switches.
For years, Green has espoused that it's "The System" that made the Vikings successful during his tenure with the franchise. A quarterback would depart, the fans would wring their hands, and Green would stifle a yawn long enough to remind everyone that things would be fine as long as "The System" was in place. This week, as Green explained the rationale for releasing Blake, he referred to his "quarterback-friendly" offense.
Given the success of his passers in the past, the term "quarterback friendly" may well have been understatement. In his system, quarterbacks have become replacement parts. One fuse burns out, you plug in another, Green believes.
The newest replacement fuse, McCown, may not vault to the top of the NFL's passing leaders in his first season under Green and the revamped Cardinals staff. But having Green in place will certainly enhance the chances that the strong-armed youngster will indeed fulfill his physical potential. Think about this: McCown's three starts and 184 pass attempts are three more starts and 184 more throws than Culpepper had when Green appointed him as the No. 1 guy in Minnesota in 2000.
There is still a chance that Green will use the third overall choice in this year's draft on a big-time college quarterback, like Mississippi's Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio). He could deal his second-round choice for former Michigan starter Drew Henson, returning to the game after a three-year hiatus for his baseball flirtation. The bet here is that Green uses his first-round choice on wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and pairs him with Anquan Boldin, the 2003 rookie of the year. Green is a close friend of Larry Fitzgerald Sr., the wideout's father, and could see the Pittsburgh star as a second coming of Randy Moss.
Green could then sign a veteran free agent to serve as mentor for McCown. Why not just keep Blake for that purpose? Because Blake has never handled that role well and would have been infinitely more divisive than another veteran who might better accept the backup job. Green was savvy enough to understand Blake's history and to know it wasn't a good fit.
Whether the inexperienced McCown is a solid fit or not remains to be seen. But there is something that Green and his staff perceived on videotape that leads them to believe he can be a productive player. And when Green places his personal stamp of approval on a quarterback, well, it means something. He is, after all, the master of quarterback roulette.
Until proven otherwise, skeptics ought to realize, no reason to believe he hasn't rolled yet another potential winner with his latest move.
Around the league
The buzz during Super Bowl week was that even the teams expected to have some trade interest in perennially disgruntled Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon, who almost certainly will not return to the Bengals in 2004, aren't willing to give up much more than a middle-round pick for the seven-year veteran. And two teams told ESPN.com they preferred to wait out the Bengals, expecting them to release Dillon outright at some point in the spring or summer. It doesn't help the Bengals' chances of dealing Dillon that the '04 draft looks to be fairly thick with tailback prospects. Dillon will be 30 in October, a key threshold for running backs in the NFL, is coming off an injury-marred 2003 campaign, and his history of being a problem child is well-documented. Want some more lack of stability? Try this: Dillon has again dumped his agent, this time dismissing David Dunn, and will change his representation for at least the third time in his career. Even one Bengals official allowed at the Super Bowl that Dillon "has basically no market (value)" right now.
Just as there seems to be a sparse market for Dillon, few teams are approaching Tampa Bay right now about dealing for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, banished by the Bucs for the final six games of the '03 campaign. New general manager Bruce Allen hasn't had to reach for the phone very often yet to field calls from teams hellbent on acquiring the wide receiver. A few weeks ago, we opined that the Bucs would attempt to restructure the balance of Johnson's contract, in order to ameliorate the cap hit the franchise will absorb when he is released or traded. We noted that, as a carrot for reworking the deal, Allen might suggest releasing Johnson quickly. Such a move would put him on the open market in advance of the standard free agency period. But Allen said this week that Johnson's release is not imminent. The Bucs apparently want to continue seeking trade offers or let Johnson and his representative stew a bit longer.
The resignation of Dan Marino -- great job of reporting by ESPN's Chris Mortensen on Super Bowl morning -- leaves the Miami Dolphins organization looking like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Even with Marino onboard, owner Wayne Huizenga was being panned by the locals for just shuffling the deck, making cosmetic changes, while basically maintaining the status quo in the football operation. Now, with Marino opting not to join the organization as senior vice president, that seems even more the case. The top football tandem, general manager Rick Spielman and coach Dave Wannstedt, remains unchanged. The one difference now, apparently, is that Spielman has control over personnel. Miami management tried hard to paint a fresh face on the franchise, perceived by the fans as an underachieving team, and its plans blew up. Huizenga could have a difficult time now replacing Marino, has conceded there is no firm timetable for doing so, and that means the club could approach the season without even a cosmetic facelift. In which case, the duet of Spielman and Wannstedt had better win, or start updating résumés.
One of the unsung heroes for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII was retired personnel director Jack Bushofsky, who played a key role helping construct the roster for the club before departing the franchise last summer. But for Bushofsky, who attended the Super Bowl with his family as the guest of owner Jerry Richardson, retirement was a very short-lived pursuit. ESPN.com has learned that, while the club hasn't announced it yet, the longtime talent evaluator has agreed to join the Washington Redskins scouting staff as a part-time bird-dog. The role, which will allow Bushofsky to keep his ties to the game as he continues to hone his golf game, is similar to that held by Foge Fazio, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator who does part-time player evaluations for the Redskins. Bushofsky will reside in the Tampa area, having just sold his house in Charlotte, and work out of his home there. It's an excellent addition, even if only part-time, for the Redskins, who have one of the younger (and least paid) scouting staffs in the league. As reflected in his last two drafts for the Panthers, the hard-working Bushofsky still has a good eye.
Looking for an unsung hero, besides offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and his much-maligned starting quintet, from the New England side for Super Bowl XXXVIII? Try massive nose tackle Ted Washington. After logging just a handful of snaps in the AFC championship game, where the Pats played a "nickel" front virtually the entire game, Washington got extensive playing time in the Super Bowl to help slow the rugged Carolina rushing attack. By our unofficial count, Washington played 31 snaps. Of those, 14 were running plays, and Carolina totaled 54 yards on those snaps. But take away the 33-yard touchdown run by DeShaun Foster, on which he bounced outside and broke at least two tackles near the sideline, and the count when Washington was clogging up the middle was 13 rushes for 21 yards. Of those 13 rushes, three were for negative yards and nine netted two yards or less. Of the 17 pass plays for which Washington was on the field, 11 netted six yards or less. There were two occasions on which Washington just collapsed the pocket inside. On the game's first pass play, with New England still in a "base" front on third-and-three, Washington shot the gap and harassed Jake Delhomme into hurrying a pass directed at Steve Smith. The big nose tackle finished the game with zero tackles, according to the official statistics, but his presence in the middle was a big element of the Patriots' success. Washington is eligible for unrestricted free agency and retaining him should be a high priority for New England officials.
Adding former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel as a consultant doesn't bode well for Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and his future with the club. Head coach Brian Billick has defended Cavanaugh and has no plans of dumping him. But the coordinator was an easy target for fans, given the mediocre performance of the offense in 2003, and the 2004 campaign will have to bring improvement. New owner Steve Bisciotti might take a more hands-on approach than did Art Modell the past few years. Not that he plans to have his fingerprints on everything, but Bisciotti realizes this is a team on track for another playoff berth, and which should go deeper into the postseason in 2004. Billick has named Kyle Boller the starting quarterback and general manager Ozzie Newsome is already at work on contract extensions for key players like cornerback Chris McAlister and tailback Jamal Lewis. The future is bright in Baltimore, but the future of Cavanaugh will depend on the overall improvement of Boller specifically, and the offense in general.
Proof positive that the Buffalo Bills will leave no stone unturned as they attempt to rehabilitate quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the offseason is that the team is close to offering a contract to former Cincinnati and Tampa Bay head coach Sam Wyche. One of the top quarterback coaches in the recent history of the league, Wyche spent this week in Buffalo on an "audition" of sorts, working with rookie head coach Mike Mularkey and seeing how he might hold up physically to the rigors of a full season. Wyche, 58, has suffered a variety of physical setbacks in recent years. Readers might recall how a vocal chord was accidentally cut during surgery, an incredible mishap that basically ended his broadcast career. More recently, he has suffered from a condition in which the heart doesn't receive enough oxygen for it to function normally. Medication seems to have gotten the heart condition under control and Wyche, who spent two years as a volunteer coach at a high school near his Pickens, S.C., home, has learned how to put less stress on his voice. Being able to hire Wyche would be a terrific move for Mularkey and, the Bills feel, a large boost to Bledsoe. Despite all the rhetoric that Bledsoe won't return to Buffalo in 2004, because of cap ramifications, team president and general manager Tom Donahoe has reiterated the veteran will be back. The club plans to attend the audition of Drew Henson next week but with an eye more toward the future. For now, Bledsoe is the guy, and Wyche could be the guy to turn him around.
Taking nothing away from Panthers coach John Fox and the resurrection accomplished in only two seasons in Carolina. But in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Fox again demonstrated that the two-point conversion is arguably the most misused option by NFL head coaches. After the Panthers scored on Foster's 33-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, to narrow the New England lead to 21-16, Fox opted for a two-point try which failed. At the time, there was 12:39 remaining in the contest, far too early to panic and try for two points. A subsequent two-pointer failed after the Panthers scored on an 85-yard touchdown catch by Muhsin Muhammad. That try basically was imperative because of the initial two-point failure. Coaches need to dump the silly card they carry in their back pockets during the game, delineating when a two-pointer should be attempted. Far too many coaches, and Fox became one of them Sunday evening, rely on the card and it does not take into account how much time remains in the game. Another game management faux pas by the Panthers came on the touchdown drive that tied the contest at 29-29. After a 31-yard Delhomme pass to Ricky Proehl moved the ball to the Patriots' 14-yard line, the Panthers called a timeout with 1:43 left. Why a timeout at that point. The New England secondary, minus two starters, was in disarray. More important, having 1:43 on the clock and three timeouts in hand is more than sufficient time to navigate 14 yards. By killing the clock at that juncture, the Panthers saved roughly 30 seconds, but that was salvaged time that only benefited the New England offense once it got the ball back for the final time. Instead of having 1:08 on the clock when its final possession began, New England might have had less than 40 seconds if the Panthers had not used the timeout at 1:43. With the two-point conversions and the ill-advised timeout, Fox might have been a bit too sly for his team's good.
We're certainly not trying to boost the draft stock of Maurice Clarett, but it is notable he started nine games in his only season at Ohio State. Notable because former University of Michigan quarterback Drew Henson, who will work out for NFL scouts next Thursday in Houston, logged just eight starts for the Wolverines. League scouts keep pointing to Clarett's sparse playing time as a deterrent to choosing him in the first round. No one has raised similar concerns about Henson's paucity of starting assignments.
Punts: The contract that former Packers general manager Ron Wolf signed to serve as a consultant for the Cleveland Browns runs 18 months and said to be worth approximately $750,000. Still without a defensive coordinator, the Oakland Raiders are schedule to talk with New England secondary coach Eric Mangini about the vacancy. Here's the breakdown on the three-year contract extension that tight end "Boo" Williams signed with New Orleans last week: A signing bonus of $1.1 million. Base salaries of $455,000 (for 2004), $850,000 (2005) and $945,000, with annual $75,000 workout bonuses. The Patriots must exercise a $500,000 option, by Monday, to trigger the balance of tailback Antowain Smith's contract. Word is that it cost the Atlanta Falcons about $800,000-$1 million annually to lure offensive line coach Alex Gibbs out of the semi-retirement he has enjoyed the last three seasons as a part-timer in Denver. It will be very interesting to see if Gibbs will be able to impose his gag rule on Falcons linemen, the way he did during his Broncos tenure. Owner Arthur Blank prefers a more open atmosphere for his franchise. Terrific move by the nine Kansas City players who are on the AFC Pro Bowl team. The players tossed in $75,000 of their own money and flew the entire Chiefs roster to Hawaii for the week of Pro Bowl festivities.
The last word: "Because of the way he's done all these things, some people here see it as disrespectful. I'm sure there are guys who are going to break his tail, try to break him in. Either he'll succeed or he'll be a total bust. If he can make it that rookie year without being assassinated, I think he will be all right." -- Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, at the Pro Bowl, speaking about Maurice Clarett.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.