Dan Morgan, Panthers LB
All right, here is one from slightly out of left field, folks: Oft-injured Carolina middle linebacker Dan Morgan posted 13 tackles, one interception, and a pass defensed in the Panthers' victory. In his first three seasons, the former University of Miami standout has missed 18 games (more than a full season's worth of outings) with a variety of ailments, including two concussions in 2003. But when Morgan is physically whole, he is a player of rare ability, a big hitter who can really run. Against the Eagles, the guy was all over the field, and Philadelphia linemen could not get out to seal him off.
Comments elicited from an NFC personnel director:
"It's really a shame that (New England defensive coordinator) Romeo Crennel probably isn't going to get a head coaching nibble now. I mean, yeah, (Bill Belichick) does a lot of the planning, but it's not like Romeo is just a caddy or something. He comes in, and shuts down the hottest offense in the league, and it won't matter. The system really stinks in that regard. I'm starting to think that maybe the league should put a moratorium on hiring until after the Super Bowl. It's silly, sure, but it would even the playing field. And maybe some owners wouldn't be so quick to fire their head coaches then."
"I don't know how you can win a conference championship game throwing just 14 passes, but God bless (Carolina quarterback) Jake Delhomme, he did it. It's got to kill the fans in New Orleans, who always wanted to see the kid play. And it ought to kill the Saints people, too. They paid a lot of money for (Aaron) Brooks and, when it comes to leadership, he isn't nearly there yet with Delhomme."
"If I was the New England offense, I would start planning right now on how to handle (Carolina defensive tackle) Kris Jenkins. People can talk all they want to about the overall quality of the Panthers front four, but it all starts with that guy, and he is an absolute load. It looked like (right end Mike) Rucker is starting to get back some energy again. I know he's been banged up, but he was too often getting out of position, too, the last few weeks."
"I know the knock on (Panthers free safety) Deon Grant is that he's soft. But the hitting back in that unit is starting to get contagious, and it seems he wants in on some of it."
"You know, there's a chance (tailback) Antowain Smith might not even be back with the Patriots in 2004. But, I'm telling you, in the big games, the guy runs hard. I think the Pats have to make some kind of decision on his contract right after the season. I'm sure they're going to try to bring in a back during the offseason, but Smith has been a good player for them at times."
"I heard about how Keyshawn Johnson is telling people he would like to play for the Patriots next year. If I was him, I wouldn't hold my breath, because Belichick wouldn't put up with him. Plus that young wide receiver group in New England is going to be really good in time. The three kids -- (David) Givens, Deion Branch and Bethel (Johnson) -- are all coming on. So much so that I'm not sure even if Troy Brown will be back next year."
Heard in the grapevine
How history could have been changed: In the 2000 draft, then-San Diego coach Mike Riley wanted to choose quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round. Bobby Beathard, the Chargers' general manager at the time, passed on his coach's advice, even though San Diego owned three picks in the sixth round. Brady will play in his second Super Bowl in two weeks. The Chargers did choose a quarterback in the sixth round that year, JaJaun Seider of Florida A&M, and he never made it onto an NFL roster. ... For whatever reason, former Arizona Cardinals sideline boss Dave McGinnis, who definitely wants to coach somewhere in 2004, isn't getting much play for any of the defensive coordinator jobs still vacant. The St. Louis Rams, who need to replace Lovie Smith, probably will hire former Cardinals coordinator Larry Marmie, a longtime friend of Mike Martz. ... Look for former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf to accept the consultant's job with the Browns that he has been talking about. Wolf is represented by Marvin Demoff, who also happens to represent Cleveland coach Butch Davis. And he is close friends with Browns team president Carmen Policy. A nice situation for everyone. Demoff basically created the position of $1 million-a-year advisor with another client, Beathard, who is finishing his second, and final, year in that capacity with the Falcons. ... The Bucs keep snooping around Mark Brunell, just figuring out what it might take to get him, and if he could be an option for them. ... Jacksonville would like to fill its special teams coaching vacancy with Pete Rodriquez, recently fired by Seattle, but fears he might be a little too expensive. ... Look for Green Bay coach Mike Sherman to promote secondary assistant Bob Slowik into the coordinator's job. Slowik has twice been a coordinator elsewhere. ... Dallas definitely will send both its backup quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Chad Hutchinson, to the NFL Europe league.
That's a painful observation to make about the Eagles, in part because we still consider team president Joe Banner the best cap manager in the business, and because owner Jeff Lurie swears he reads us on a daily basis. Good guys, Lurie and Banner, really top-shelf in their dealings with us. But they woke up on Monday morning with the same hangover, and the same dose of brutal reality, with which they awakened the day after each of the previous two NFC championship games: Good guys who still haven't marshaled their team to a Super Bowl berth.
In some cases, of course, three is a charm. In Philadelphia, after the fog of another NFC title game defeat, three will be an alarm. Oh, the Eagles will almost certainly contend again in 2004, given that there remains a solid nucleus of talent. But the fact is, this Philadelphia Eagles team won't contend for a fourth straight season. Because this Eagles team, as currently configured, pretty much ceased to exist just seconds after the scoreboard clock at Lincoln Financial Field drained down to all zeroes Sunday evening. That isn't to suggest that the Eagles will be dismantled in the months ahead. Dismantled, after all, is a very strong word. And it would be ill-advised to tear down this team in wholesale manner. But there were changes after the team's first two NFL title game defeats -- some alterations that made this team arguably the least talented of the three Philly rosters to advance to within one victory of a Super Bowl invitation -- and the tweaks coming to the team this spring and summer might be the most dramatic yet.
Clearly, this is a team with tons of cap room, as usual. Philadelphia has only about $60.5 million committed to its '04 roster, not counting qualifying offers the club will make to some veterans, and Donovan McNabb ($8.9 million) and right offensive tackle Jon Runyan ($5.5 million) are the only guys with salary cap charges of more than $3 million for next year. But it is the veterans who aren't on the 2004 cap who could be worrisome. Both starting cornerbacks, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Strong-side linebacker Carlos Emmons, who finished the season on injured reserve and definitely was missed on Sunday, also can hit the open market. Tailback Duce Staley, who missed all of training camp last summer in a salary dispute, will be pursued in free agency by teams like Dallas and Washington, you can bet.
Banner has always been sage in contractual dealings, at times acting almost like an actuary, in determining what aging players ought to be retained. Vincent will be 33 by the time the '04 season starts. Taylor is 30 and Emmons will be 31 in September. Bank on this: Banner will carefully consult his tables that indicate to him at what age players at different positions begin to erode. It would be difficult to go into next season minus both cornerbacks, but that is part of the reason the Eagles cleverly chose defensive backs with their three first picks in the 2002 lottery. One of those youngsters, strong safety Michael Lewis, is already a starter. Another, corner Sheldon Brown, is the team's "nickel" back. It's time for Lito Sheppard, the Eagles' top pick in that draft, to step up.
It might be time, too, for Philadelphia to invest some of that cap room on a big-time receiver. We admire the rationale of coach Andy Reid, that he would prefer to spend money on the defense, because he can decipher a way to make the offense work. But at some point, a team needs receivers who bail out a quarterback, and the Eagles' wideouts don't often do that. Former first-rounder Freddie Mitchell made nice strides this season. On the flip side, starters James Thrash and Todd Pinkston had one catch between them on Sunday, for a paltry nine yards.
And then there is the matter of McNabb's psyche. Not many quarterbacks, certainly few as talented as McNabb, have failed in three straight chances to grab the brass (Super Bowl) ring. Nope, courtesy of all the talk-radio stations in town, it figures to be an offseason of debate and denigration for the franchise. Perhaps the only noise louder than those talk-radio rants on Monday will be that of the window of opportunity slamming shut on this Eagles team. The next one could be back in the playoffs in 2004, maybe even back in the NFC championship game, but it won't be the same Eagles bunch that limped off the field Sunday night.
Like a Fox
If the phone rings in Marty Hurney's office early Monday morning, the Carolina Panthers general manager might want to check the caller I.D., just to see if the "775" area code pops up. By way of explanation, the "775" area code includes Las Vegas, home to agent Bob LaMonte, the man who represents Panthers coach John Fox in his contractual dealings. And, make no mistake, there are going to be some upcoming negotiations on the contract Fox signed in 2002 as a first-time NFL head coach. That deal has just a year, and then an option season, remaining on it. We've no idea what the base salaries are but we are betting Fox hasn't hit the $2 million mark in a season yet. Not to worry, because that will change shortly, you can wager the mortgage.
Fox has done a terrific job, taking over a franchise that won just one game the season before he arrived, and stewarding it to the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. He deserves a healthy bump in the paycheck and we're sure Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson, a man for whom we are especially happy, will agree. First, of course, there is the little matter of a Super Bowl. After that, there will be time for haggling, not only with LaMonte, but also with Rick Smith, the agent for quarterback Jake Delhomme. The first-year starter signed a two-year contract for about $4 million as an unrestricted free agent last summer. No way is he going into 2004 as a lame-duck starter. The best is still ahead for Delhomme, both on the field, and at the pay window as well.
Pats line up on offense
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gets a lot of credit, and justifiably so, for designing a blueprint that plays into the strengths of New England quarterback Tom Brady. The Pats don't ask Brady to throw the ball deep very often. As noted here in recent weeks, he spreads things around (eight different receivers on Sunday), and takes care of the ball. The New England passing game is very clever, using the area between the numbers on the field to run an incredible collection of slants and screens and pivot routes, and just moving the chains without the benefit of a lot of big plays. And even though the ground game is suspect, and was again unproductive much of the season, Weis gets something out of it in the playoffs.
But let's give some props here to the New England offensive line and to longtime mentor Dante Scarnecchia, a guy who never gets mentioned among the league's best assistants, but who sure has the secret formula for transforming a bunch of chicken feathers into chicken said. Consider the Pats' starters on Sunday afternoon: Left tackle Matt Light, a second round pick. Left guard Russ Hochstein, a onetime fifth-round pick of Tampa Bay, who has been cut three times in his career. Center Dan Koppen, a rookie fifth-round pick. Right guard Joe Andruzzi, a journeyman who entered the NFL as an undrafted college free agent in 1997. Right tackle Tom Ashworth, an undrafted free agent with San Francisco in 2001.
Not exactly a quintet that would win any beauty contests, that's for sure, but a group that allowed zero sacks on Sunday and really controlled the line of scrimmage. Scarnecchia has two weeks to prepare his collection of rejects for a Carolina defensive front many scouts feel is the league's best. The smart money says that the Patriots line will be ready.
The other Manning
Told you there would be a Manning in the Super Bowl. We just weren't counting on it being Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., that's all. The third-round draft pick, who supplanted Terry Cousin as the starting cornerback opposite Reggie Howard a few weeks ago, had three interceptions in Carolina's upset at Philadelphia.
A lot of NFL scouts liked Manning in the '03 draft but were concerned about his lack of size. Hey, who can blame them, given that the former UCLA star is definitely vertically challenged, at just 5-feet-8. But the Panthers scouts were undeterred. "We knew that he would be a terrific special teams player right off the bat," related former Panthers personnel director Jack Bushofsky, who retired this summer, but is still reveling in the exploits of a roster he certainly helped to construct. "And we felt he would be very good as a 'nickel' guy. And since your 'nickel' corner is on the field so much anyway, this is a guy we really wanted."
The Panthers pegged Manning as about a third-rounder. But with their own third-round choice last April, the 76th overall, they chose Manning's teammate at UCLA, tight end Mike Seidman. Then they started sweating, wondering if Manning would last until their pick in the fourth round, a gamble they ultimately decided they did not want to take. So they shipped a pair of fourth-round choices to Denver for an extra selection in the third round, and grabbed Manning at No. 82 overall.
Said Bushofsky: "You know, with a first-rounder like (right offensive tackle Jordan) Gross, you shouldn't go wrong. But when you hit on a guy like Manning, and he comes through like you felt he might, that's a bonus." By the way, Gross is a superb player, a tackle who will be in about 10 Pro Bowl games before he retires.
Wilson making an impact
Speaking of rookie cornerbacks, how about New England's Eugene Wilson, who made a superb transition to free safety early in the year. Despite having to switch positions, the Pats moved Wilson into the first unit early on, after it became painfully obvious that Antwan Harris could not fill the spot of Lawyer Milloy, released days before the start of the season. Harris was atrocious in the opening-game loss at Buffalo and the Pats staff did not hesitate to make the move to Wilson, a second-round pick from Illinois.
I can remember standing in the back of the Pro Player Stadium press box in mid-October, and Pats personnel guru Scott Pioli telling me about Wilson's toughess. "We knew," Pioli said, "he could move inside and play safety. You look at the college tapes and he's out there banging people around."
Wilson is, indeed, a hitter, and he demonstrated that again on Sunday night. In fact, there are probably a couple borderline shots, where Wilson may have led with his helmet, that could merit review this week by the league. Wilson might do well to keep the ol' checkbook handy.
Make a call
Speaking of reviews by the NFL's officiating hierarchy: Please, guys, no more rationalizations about how there are so few penalties in the playoffs because the teams are more disciplined at this level. Officiating chief Mike Perriera has done an outstanding job in communicating better with the media. But, geez, even we media hacks aren't that naïve.
The zebras all but sew their flags into their knickers come playoff time. Hey, this ain't hockey, fellas, where a trip isn't a trip if it's in the final two minutes or overtime. Holding is holding -- well, maybe that's a poor example, since there is little consistency on that call -- and it doesn't matter if it's the first week of the year or the Super Bowl.
At one point on Sunday afternoon, Tony Dungy was 20 yards out on the field, protesting an obvious hold that was ignored. We're all for keeping the pace of the playoffs moving along and not interrupting such huge games with a flag daze demonstration. But some of the stuff with which players get away in the playoffs is pretty incredible.
The shortcomings of the Indianapolis offense aside on Sunday, the team still needs to continue building the defense, at least if it plans to take another step forward in 2004. But given the Colts' cap situation, and the fact general manager Bill Polian still hasn't found a way to get Peyton Manning's name on a new contract, that could be difficult.
The Colts have roughly $78.04 million committed to the '04 cap, which is projected to be about $79 million and change. If the team is forced to use the "franchise" designation on Manning, that could be a cap hit of $18 million-plus. There are backup players with huge numbers, defensive end Chad Bratzke ($10.28 million) and offensive lineman Adam Meadows ($8.73 million), who won't be back at those prices. Backup quarterback Brock Huard, due a phat roster bonus, has a cap number of $5.13 million that needs adjusting. Starting cornerback Walt Harris, whose play has slipped, has a cap value of $3.33 million, and he likely will be sacrificed to make way for a younger player, like Donald Strickland, who has been playing at corner this year.
Until the Manning situation is settled, and despite the company-line rhetoric there really hasn't been much dialogue of late, the Colts will be hamstrung. Polian contended this year the team planned on being able to survive the $15 million cap price Manning carries. Uh, yeah, right. Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks have done an estimable job revamping the defense the last two years, but the unit still needs more work, and maybe more bulk. The smallish Colts look good when they are using their quickness to make plays. But as the season wears on, the Colts tend to wear out, at least a little.
It will be interesting to see if Dungy makes a play during the offseason for Warren Sapp, a pending free agent, and a player he basically nurtured through tough times early in his career. Then again, if the Colts don't get a deal done with Manning to create some cap room, the Sapp matter will be a moot point anyway.
Rich get richer
OK, so they don't make dynasties in the NFL anymore, right? But as the New England Patriots prepare for their second Super Bowl trip in three seasons, something to chew on: Bill Belichick and his joined-at-the-hip personnel chief, Scott Pioli, own seven choices in the first four rounds of the 2004 draft, including two selections in the first round. And they should have back on the field next season, according to recent reports on his ongoing rehabilitation, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. Remember, he's the big-time pass rusher that the Pats stole in the free agent market last summer, but who never played a snap during the regular season because of a serious hip injury. Yep, just what Belichick needs, right? Another one of those hybrid-type linebackers he loves so much. And more young players to add to what was a very productive 2003 lottery.
Injuries finally ground Eagles
Because they aren't a team seeking an excuse or an easy out, the Philadelphia Eagles won't admit it, but all the injuries they suffered to their defensive line in training camp and the preseason really hurt them badly at the end of the year. The front four unit just had no viable depth. In each of the last two outings, you looked at the Eagles linemen, and they either had their hands on their hips or were down on a knee between plays. Guys like tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker were absolutely eroded physically. Philly was playing guys like undrafted rookie college free agent Sam Rayburn and aging Marco Coleman (who was lining up at tackle, for gosh sakes), and giving them a lot of snaps, and that graphically illustrated the lack of depth. Sooner or later in the NFL, injuries will come back to haunt you, and it was later for the Eagles.
Just ignore it
Here's hoping that Peyton Manning goes home, ignores the newspapers (OK, Peyton, even the internet), doesn't watch any television, and kicks back for a while. Manning proved his mettle this year but, given the standard to which a lot of critics seem to hold him, Sunday's defeat will re-ignite the silliness about how he can't win the big game. Did he play well on Sunday? No way. And no one is more cognizant of that than Manning. He noted before departing Gillette Stadium and into the chilly New England evening that he might not even look at the video from Sunday's game. We'd call that a good move.