LANDOVER, Md. -- Here's hoping the first impression of New York Jets tailback Curtis Martin, the one drawn during the Thursday night loss to the Washington Redskins here, is not the one with which we conclude his ninth league season.
In rushing for just 48 yards on 15 carries, Martin, now age 30, appeared tardy to the hole. His longest run, on the opening play of the second half, was for 12 yards. He had 10 runs that netted three yards or fewer. Six rushes were for two yards or less. The sharpness and the power that had marked most of his previous eight campaigns seemed absent.
Of course, Martin had little assistance from his offensive line, or from a passing attack that all evening eschewed the attempted vertical strike. We're not about to shovel dirt on the career of the wondrously talented but characteristically underrated Martin, a native of my home city. A guy who played at my alma mater and a class act all the way.
But having logged an average of 325.5 carries per year, and an average of 372 "touches" since 1995, Martin has put a lot of mileage on his two powerful legs. And in '02, those legs argued back with him, as he hobbled through ankle injuries, yet somehow managed still to crack the 1,000-yard milestone for an eighth consecutive year.
But the truth of the matter for Martin, and for virtually every other tailback, is that things usually aren't the same once you get on the wrong side of 30. The litany of tailbacks who ran for 1,000 yards after turning 30 would not take long to recite. And while the league has witnessed a sort of "graying" of the tailback position in recent seasons, reaching the three-decade marker characteristically means a tailback is also reaching the beginning of the end.
Certainly history has indicated that age 30, and sometimes even earlier than that, begins a running back's football dotage.
Which brings us, in a painstakingly convoluted fashion, to Kansas City premier tailback Priest Holmes. This week Chiefs management deservedly rewarded him with a four-year contract extension that prolongs his relationship with one of the game's class franchises through the 2009 campaign. Holmes, of course, has led the league in total yards from scrimmage each of the last two seasons.
What most stories about his extension failed to note was that Holmes, who realized about $27.8 million in so-called "new money" with the extension, will turn 30 on Oct. 7. In fact, he is only five months younger than Martin, although his body has absorbed far less punishment than that inflicted on the Jets star. Not until the past two seasons did Holmes ever tote the ball more than 233 times in a campaign. Over his career, Holmes has averaged 183.2 rushes per year and 219.8 "touches" per season. There appears to be, now that Holmes seems to have settled all questions about his surgically repaired hip, a lot of gas left in the tank.
But with running backs, you never know when they will lose that critical half-step, and it can happen virtually overnight in some cases. Which begs the question of just how much will Holmes see of the $35.3 million he is scheduled to earn over the next seven seasons?
It was, of course, a very savvy deal. Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson has never been accused of just falling off the turnip truck. He and the Chiefs did a classy thing by rewarding Holmes, who had outplayed the five-year, $8.4 million deal that he had signed with Kansas City as a free agent in 2001, with a contract more commensurate to the player's production. Holmes is the team's offensive centerpiece, a player around whom everything else revolves, and he is now paid like one. The Chiefs certainly were under no obligation to upgrade the contract, but did so anyway -- in a wise manner.
With an extension, not a new contract the new deal actually saved the Chiefs salary cap room in 2003, with Holmes' charge going from a scheduled $2.618 million to just $1.454 million. Even next year, the increase in the cap charge is negligible, just $192,000.
Seattle cornerback Shawn Springs, after suffering a broken right shoulder blade that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks, was added to his lengthy injury dossier: "Every time I put on the damn uniform, something bad happens. I try to get away from (the injuries), but it didn't work out. I said to be myself, 'Man, this can't be real.' "
For his part, Holmes pockets a $1.65 million signing bonus now, and another "option" bonus of $8.475 million next spring, although $3.475 million of that is deferred to 2005 and 2006. Instead of earning $7.5 million over the next three seasons, Holmes will take home $14.55 million. Any time you nearly double the take, you can't be too unhappy with the results, right?
And Holmes, who declared himself "the happiest guy around," certainly isn't saddened by landing the contract upgrade he sought.
But by the end of the 2005 season, Holmes will be closing in on 33, and probably closing in as well on the end of his career. Chances are, Holmes won't see about $20 million of the $35.3 million that's in the contract. Then again, by that time, neither Holmes nor the Chiefs will think much of it, since both will have gotten what they wanted. The Chiefs will probably have to eat some "acceleration" on future spending limits, but such is life in the NFL in the era of the salary cap.
By doing the right thing, and in a prudent manner, the Chiefs kept their best player happy. And a happy Holmes, who had threatened to boycott this weekend's season opener if a new deal wasn't in place, is apt to be an even more motivated and productive player.
Around the league
The skinny on the Lawyer Milloy release: During a meeting late last week with coach Bill Belichick, the four-time Pro Bowl safety was apprised that he would either have to accept a reworked contract or be released. Word is that when Milloy heard the word "release," he lost all perspective. Then on Sunday, when Belichick again broached the subject of restructuring his contract, Milloy, for some reason, felt blindsided by the very suggestion. Truth be told, the two sides then came very close to an agreement, and even Milloy's agents, Kevin and Carl Poston, recommended he take the Patriots' proposal, which would have reduced his base salary from $4.4 million to about $3.2 million. The agents apparently felt that, essentially on the eve of the season, they would be unable to find a team with sufficient cap room to cut Milloy a representative deal. Turns out that Milloy made out big-time. Instead of making $4.4 million in 2003, he will pocket a cool $7 million between his signing bonus and base salary. Word is that none of the $5 million signing bonus was deferred. Of course, once Milloy was released, the Postons helped to drive up the price by mischaracterizing some offers. They played on the emotions of Redskins owner Dan Snyder by telling him the Jets were involved in the bidding, even after New York had thrown in the towel. When Snyder then decided to add a third year to his original two-year offer -- and option year with a $3 million bonus to trigger the added season -- they characterized the option bonus as part of the signing bonus. But, hey, give the guys credit. They got their client a heck of a contract, and that's their job. As for the football reasons that Milloy was released, well, Belichick and his staff simply didn't feel that in 2002 he played up to his contract. From their perspective, but obviously not that of the half-dozen teams that pursued Milloy once he was free, he was a player in decline. The irony is that most teams feel that safety Rodney Harrison, one of the key free-agent additions New England made in the offseason, definitely has the performance arrow pointed in the down position.
And, yes, the Patriots did float the name of cornerback Ty Law last week to see if it would draw any interest. Nothing serious, of course, just some casual mentions that he might be available at the right price. And why is that? Because the veteran cornerback, like old running mate Milloy, has a wrong price, cap-wise, both now and for the future. Law will earn a base salary of $4.9 million this season, but his cap charge is a whopping $8.806 million, about $3 million more than Milloy's cap hit. In 2004, the base salary for Law jumps to $5.65 million, there is a $1 million reporting bonus, and his cap number is $9.457 million. Should we even mention 2005, since Law will be gone by then, or will have restructured his deal? Ah, what the heck, huh? The base salary is $8.75 million, with a $1 million reporting bonus and cap charge of $12.557 million. Suddenly those two rookie cornerbacks the Patriots staff loves so much, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel (the latter of whom will start on Sunday at Buffalo), are looking even better. Just a hunch: By 2004, Law will be gone, too, and Wilson and Samuel will both be starting.
During the first seven months of the offseason, not much had changed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost only two of their '02 starters of consequence, safety Dexter Jackson and strong-side linebacker Alshermond Singleton, in free agency. But then just this week, Tampa Bay was forced to make a change at the middle linebacker spot, when Shelton Quarles suffered a broken forearm in a Thursday afternoon practice. On a more quiet, but just as significant note, the Bucs also shuffled the interior of their offensive line, which was a frequent sore spot in 2002. The Quarles injury, which occurred in a special teams drill, is definitely a setback. The veteran is essential to the Bucs' much-ballyhooed "Cover 2" defense, since his rare ability to get deep down the middle of the field in coverage is key to coordinator Monte Kiffin's machinations. His replacement, Nate Webster, is solid versus the run but not nearly as good versus the pass. As for the offensive line, coach Bill Muir has moved Cosey Coleman from left guard to right guard and inserted Jason Whittle, signed as a free agent from the New York Giants, in his old spot. There already was a new center, free agent John Wade (Jacksonville), who replaces the departed Jeff Christy. The 2002 starting left guard, Kerry Jenkins, now becomes a swing man at both the guard spots and left tackle. All that maneuvering means the defending champions will start the season with only their two tackles, Roman Oben (left) and Kenyatta Walker (right), in the same offensive line spots they played a year ago.
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had to be overjoyed this week when left offensive tackle Walter Jones, one of the game's premier blindside pass protection blockers, ended his holdout and reported to the team for the one-year qualifying tender of $5.09 million. At least now Hasselbeck, who was absolutely torrid down the stretch of the 2002 season, won't have to fret nearly as much about his backside. Still, the loss of right tackle Chris Terry to a four-game suspension remains a very big one. His replacement, Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, isn't nearly as good a player. Credit should be awarded Womack for his perseverance, and his ability to simply slide into the offensive line spot where he is most needed at any given moment. But with only 10 starts to his credit, and still slow afoot, Womack is basically a mid-level player. It isn't mere happenstance that, when Seattle claimed Terry on waivers from Carolina last year, their offensive lines woes dwindled. The Seahawks averaged 27.0 points in his five starts, and that wasn't just serendipity, either. Like most quarterbacks, Hasselbeck doesn't like quick pressure in his face, and Terry was excellent at eliminating that. Womack doesn't figure to be nearly as good. Get someone up in your grille, if you're a right-handed quarterback, and it often eliminates the front side of the formation. It also means that coaches, to compensate for pressure, use a tight end to help protect. Doing that reduces an offense's passing game options and the Mike Holmgren-designed bastardization of the West Coast attack is all about options and alternate receivers. Yeah, getting Jones back was a huge deal, but even when he played in 2002, the Seahawks were forced to rely on too much "max" protection. There were a lot of occasions in which Seattle ran two-man patterns, and the Holmgren passing tree should not have to be so "dumbed down." Which is precisely why Terry's suspension was a sanction the Seahawks could have done without.
Terrific note from Ken Murray of The Baltimore Sun last week, in which he cited Ravens team physician Dr. Andrew Tucker concerning the number of lower leg injuries players suffered in the preseason. "From my perspective," Tucker told Murray, "it's unusual to have that cluster of fractures." He was addressing the lower leg injuries of Michael Vick, Rams wide receiver Kevin Curtis, Eagles defensive end Jamaal Green, 49ers cornerback Jason Webster, and Denver tailback Quentin Griffin, among others. Tucker noted that, any time a team changes its playing surface, there is a risk period for players until they adjust. "Any time there's a new turf, we're concerned about lower extremity injuries," Tucker said. "Any time the surface changes, there is a learning curve for what are the best shoes (in which to play)." There are eight teams with new playing surfaces this season: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and both of the New York franchises.
Last week we noted in this spot that there would be plenty of action on the waiver wire once some of the "claimable" backup tailbacks were released. Oops. None of the players we felt would draw interest -- Kenny Watkins (Washington), Patrick Pass (New England) or Robert Edwards (Miami) -- were rescued from the unemployment ranks. It surprised us but, according to one highly respected running backs coach, many teams feel that a back needs a couple weeks to assimilate an offense and even needy clubs weren't willing to bring in a back the week before the season opener. "You watch, though, all those guys will be getting workouts next week," said the assistant. "They'll all be back in the league before the end of the month, I'd bet."
In a pretty wide-ranging interview with Sports Business Journal last week, commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledged he hasn't heard much lately about the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers to Tampa Bay Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer and his family. And this might be a reason why: Unless somebody slaps a pair of defibrillator paddles on the deal, and resuscitates the thing, it's dying. Owners from both entities, but especially those in the NFL, have some pretty strong issues with the whole concept. His NFL peers simply don't believe Glazer has the financial wherewithal to purchase the Dodgers without using some of the Bucs money, or using the NFL franchise as collateral, and Malcolm would have a lot of 'splaining to do before he would get their approval. As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once noted, "It ain't over 'til it's over." In baseball terms, though, Glazer looks to be in the ninth inning, shy a couple runs, and down to his last strike.
If there was any lingering doubt about who is calling the personnel shots in Cincinnati, it should have been expunged for good last weekend, when first-year head coach Marvin Lewis demonstrated he is the new sheriff in town. Even though it has been clear to most observers that Bengals president Mike Brown handed the keys to Lewis, granting him far more power than any previous Cincinnati head coach ever enjoyed, there were skeptics who suspected management would still play a role in shaping the roster. And they were wrong. In whittling down a roster for the first time in his career, Lewis broke out the big machete, and paid no attention to draft status, salary, or past service with the franchise. He cut former third-round wide receiver Ron Dugans, who had his best season in 2002, but who doesn't play fast. He jettisoned Steve Foley, after benching him, despite the fact the veteran linebacker got a $2.1 million signing bonus just two years ago. Former first-round defensive end Reinard Wilson, who had zero sacks in '02, is gone. Not since 1989 did the Bengals have a second-round choice who didn't stick with the team through at least the opening game of his sophomore campaign. The streak ended when Lewis lopped off free safety Lamont Thompson, a second-rounder in 2002, and a guy who got a signing bonus of $1.6 million. Viewed as a disappointment in his rookie year, most teams still felt the physically imposing Thompson (6-feet-1, 220 pounds, sub-4.5 speed), who holds the Pac 10 career record for interceptions, would develop into a player. But the Lewis staff saw him as too soft and so he is gone. Reserve linebacker Armegis Spearman, to whom the Bengals paid a $500,000 signing bonus to match a restricted free agent offer sheet from Green Bay, was released. Less than a week before the opening game, unsure that Neil Rackers' balky knee would hold up, the veteran kicker was released. It should also be noted that Lewis made the call to release Akili Smith, after the team had invested more than $12 million in the former first-round quarterback, and to not match the Buffalo offer sheet to "transition" free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes, the Bengals' top defender. So no more talk, please, about how Mike Brown and his family are pulling the personnel strings behind the scenes. Lewis is clearly The Man.
Now that Joey Porter is out indefinitely, it really magnifies the inability of the Pittsburgh Steelers to turn inside linebacker Kendrell Bell into the third-down pass-rush threat that the coaches felt he could be someday. The Steelers went into training camp in 2002 with the intent of moving Bell to end in "sub" situations. But when Bell suffered a bad ankle sprain, the experiment fizzled. This summer, Bell got tutorials from fellow 'backers Porter and Jason Gildon and still couldn't develop enough rush moves for the Steelers to feel comfortable with him at end. Essentially, the experiment has been abandoned, and no one should look for a third attempt in 2004. Bell is a marvelous defender. But his rather generous skills do not include rushing the quarterback off the edge.
Since the regular season has begun, the so-called "rule of 51," which means that a team only has to count its 51 highest-paid players against the cap total, no longer applies. Franchises now must account for everyone under contract -- active roster, injured reserve, practice squad, physically unable to perform -- when compiling cap totals. The teams with the most room under the cap on Thursday evening: Arizona, $12.95 million; Philadelphia, $7.17 million; New Orleans, $5.39 million; Kansas City, $5.04 million; Houston, $4.64 million; Baltimore, $4.55 million; Cincinnati, $4.48 million; Washington, $4.47 million; Dallas, $4.29 million; Chicago, $4.18 million; New England, $4.08 million. The teams with the least salary cap room are Carolina ($120,468), Green Bay ($184,479), Tennessee ($234,658), New York Giants ($288,302) and Miami ($363,846). The league average for available spending room is $2.95 million.
Upset at his spot on the depth chart, tailback Dorsey Levens apparently has requested that the New York Giants trade him. Levens signed a three-year contract as a free agent this spring, but the primary backup job behind starter Tiki Barber was awarded this week to second-year veteran Delvin Joyce. It's not even certain now if Levens is ahead of the much-criticized Ron Dayne in the New York pecking order. There is a good chance that Levens won't even dress for Sunday's season opener. "The way it's come down," Levens said, "I have no desire to be here. I'm at the point in my career where I've done a lot. I'm not playing because I have to play. I'm playing because I love the game. And I didn't come here to be a cheerleader."
Good thing for Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman, rated the top prospect at his position by National Football Scouting, that ESPN college analyst Mark May doesn't work as a scout for any NFL teams. May was brutal in his assessment of Losman's play during a Monday night loss to TCU, even invoking the hackneyed "looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane" line at one point. But several scouts who saw the game, and who agreed Losman didn't play very well in what figures to be his lone national and prime time appearance during his senior year, weren't as quick to criticize the Green Wave quarterback. In fact, some may be ready to wave green at Losman come draft time, when he is still likely to be one of the top quarterbacks selected. Looking at last week's scores, Eli Manning certainly didn't play well as Ole Miss squeezed a little too uncomfortably by Vanderbilt. Even though Cody Pickett posted impressive numbers in Washington's opener, the Huskies were obliterated by Ohio State. One would think that analysts would have learned this lesson by now: The NFL still drafts as much for potential as it does for production. The over-the-top rant about Losman was a thinly-veiled critique of the combine process more than it was a rip job on the Tulane quarterback.
In the last eight games in which Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice has faced his old high school teammate, Donovan McNabb, he has sacked the Eagles quarterback 11 times. Rice has 14½ sacks in 14 games versus the Eagles and has at least one sack in nine of those contests. The Bucs and Eagles face off Monday night, of course, in a rematch of the 2002 conference championship game.
Tough week for New York Jets general manager Terry Bradway. His team lost its emotional season opener at Washington on Thursday night, a matchup some club officials quietly treated like their personal holy grail. And his son Tommy, a talented high school receiver who is drawing scholarship offers from I-AA schools, blew out his knee.
Punts: In the last three games that Vinny Testaverde has started and finished, he has thrown for just 380 yards and the New York Jets have scored only 23 points. Because having to replace injured players has eaten up some of the cap room they planned to still have at this point, the Detroit Lions have slowed the contract negotiation discussions with linebacker Barrett Green that we reported last week. Detroit still wants to keep Green, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, for the long term. But they may not pick up the extension talks until later in the season now. Washington rookie wide receiver Taylor Jacobs actually bruised his pancreas last week when he fell on a defender in the preseason finale. Jacobs insists he will play in the second regular-season game, and he was released from the hospital this week, after a four-day stay. His optimism aside, the team's medical staff might want him to sit out one more week. Denver cornerback Jimmy Spencer has succeeded in becoming the NFL's first combination player-coach since Dan Reeves with the Dallas Cowboys in the early '70s. Spencer will play in the Broncos' "dime" package and probably on special teams, while also working with the defensive backs. Once buried on the depth chart, Cleveland tailback James Jackson is seeing his practice time increased, and could work his way into a real contributor's role in the first month of the season. You've got to like the Minnesota Vikings draft a lot. Virtually all seven selections figure to contribute as rookies and tailback Onterrio Smith and wide receiver Nate Burleson look like playmakers.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.