Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
15 Dec 2003
Continuing our tradition of giving asylum to homeless football columns from around the Internet, this week we present Russell Levine's Confessions of a Football Junkie column. Prior to this week, the column appeared on the website of the fledgling cable channel Football Network, but the site has gone on temporary hiatus. Russell comments each week on action from both the NFL and the college ranks (more of the latter, usually, but there isn't a lot of college action to speak of this week, is there?) You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season here. Let us know what you think of Confessions of a Football Junkie.
By now you've probably seen more than enough replays of the Saints' Joe Horn doing his best "D.H. from Playmakers" imitation after a second quarter TD against the Giants. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's contention that Playmakers discredits the NFL gets more and more laughable every time something as ridiculous as Horn pulling a cell phone from under the goal-post padding happens. As for D.H., he was the player who donned a cape in the end zone after a TD in one episode. Of course, D.H. also called his crack dealer at halftime so that he could get over his withdrawal sickness in time to run for 100 yards in the second half, only to have to send his gay teammate out to the parking lot, in full uniform, to pick up his score. I'm going to go ahead and assume that Horn's "phone call" from the Superdome end zone was a little more innocent.
I do think the NFL goes too far with some of the anti-celebration rules, but Horn's act was stupid and he deserves whatever fine he gets. I actually have a bigger problem with ESPN's Joe Theisman, who at first laughed out loud at Horn, then within two minutes berated him on the air for being classless. I hate to go Phil Mushnick on ESPN, but if their announcers are going to be up in arms about such behavior, perhaps they could refrain from showing the replay 10 times and putting a picture of Horn and his phone on the front page of ESPN.com for much of the next 12 hours. Is it too much to ask for ESPN to treat such behavior like they do when a drunken fan runs on the field and keep the cameras away?
* * *
I'm a huge fan of Gregg Easterbrook and TMQ -- like a lot of you, his presence on Football Outsiders was what led me to this site -- but I have to take issue with his longstanding grudge against NFL Sunday Ticket. From my perspective, if you don't have access to DirecTV, that's reason enough to move.
Being a Bucs fan in New Jersey BST (before Sunday Ticket) meant maybe seeing them two or three times a season. These days, I'm dissatisfied if I miss a single play. Which I don't, through the magic of TiVo, even with two little kids running around that occasionally need things like, say, a diaper change.
One of the other beautiful things about Sunday Ticket with dual-tuner TiVo is the ability to put another game of interest on the second tuner and flip back and forth without missing a play of either. Normally, I'll channel-surf on the other tuner or watch a game with playoff or fantasy-league implications, but not this Sunday.
This week, the second tuner was devoted to Storm Track 2003 as I followed the snow games in New York and Cincinnati. After a disappointing first half, the storm hit the New England area in time for the second half of Pats-Jags. I'd watch Pop Warner ball in the snow if it was on TV. I don't think I've ever had more fun watching an NFL game that didn't involve my favorite team than the "tuck rule" game between New England and Oakland two years ago and I love the fact that the league is playing night playoff games in places like Green Bay. I think the players like it too. Curtis Martin seemed to turn back the clock about three seasons as he romped for 174 yards in a blizzard against Pittsburgh. The field was so covered that Jets receiver Santana Moss ran a post pattern five yards beyond the end zone, the DB covered him and Chad Pennington attempted to throw him the ball. You half expected coach Herman Edwards to run onto the field to argue which set of gloves marked the out-of-bounds line.
* * *
It should be an interesting week in Tampa, where Bucs' GM Rich McKay has left to accept the same post with the Atlanta Falcons. McKay's departure from the Bucs was one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL. His power within the organization has been greatly diminished since the day ownership decided to go against his recommendation to hire Marvin Lewis to replace coach Tony Dungy after the 2001 season.
That decision led to the hiring of Jon Gruden, of course, and the subsequent championship season of 2002. When team owner Malcolm Glazer was handed the Lombardi Trophy in San Diego, he thanked Gruden, the players and the fans, but declined to mention McKay's name. Given a chance to correct that omission, Gruden accepted the Trophy from Glazer and went on to thank ... Dungy.
To the credit of both of them, the coach and GM never aired their dirty laundry in public. Now that McKay has finally departed, the Bucs are -- for better or worse -- Gruden's team. They will name a new GM, but it will be Gruden calling the shots. NFL coaches with personnel power have a lousy track record. Even Bill Parcells struggled in the dual role. The Bucs would be wise to make their new GM more than just a figurehead. It's no secret that Gruden loves veterans and cares little for the salary cap or character issues. That may work with a team that needs a couple of veteran free agents to put it over the top, but is less likely to succeed on a team that is facing a major rebuilding project, as the Bucs no doubt will be in another season or two.
McKay takes his talents to Atlanta, which just so happens to be Tampa Bay's opponent this week. Something tells me that McKay may have to wait until after Saturday's game to collect his personal belongings from his old office. The Falcons will be counting on McKay to help them build a defense through the draft, exactly the area he excelled in with the Bucs, where he drafted such players as Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber.
* * *
A rusty Michael Vick took his lumps against a very fast Indianapolis defense Sunday. The Colts have exactly the type of defense that gives Vick fits -- with the speed to get on him in a hurry and force him to make quick decisions. Vick's first instinct is to pull the ball down and run, which is less effective against the Indianapolis team speed, just as it will be this week against the Bucs. Tampa Bay used its speed to bottle up Vick completely in two meetings last season.
I'm not going to rush to judge Vick just because one awful outing. After such a long layoff, his decision-making is clearly slower than it needs to be. But if anyone still doubts that Vick needs to be on the field instead of saving himself for next season, I'd love to hear their reasoning why.
Vick may very well be the greatest athlete ever to line up at QB in an NFL game and he did some amazing things on the field last season. But until he learns to harness his athleticism and protect himself, he won't have a much of a career. He has already suffered several injuries while trying to run and has taken some huge hits in the two weeks he's been back this year. He will not last if he continues to take this kind of punishment.
What Vick needs to do -- and what he may have been forced to do if he had come back sooner -- is learn to stand in the pocket, go through his progressions and deliver the ball. He can still be a scrambler, but he has to learn to pick his spots. If he can become a better pocket passer, then he can use the threat of the run to open up plays in the passing game. In the long run, a scrambling QB is dangerous because of what he can do throwing the ball, not running with it. When he can use his legs to buy time and cause a defense to break down, that is when 75-yard touchdowns happen. The obvious comparison to Vick is Donovan McNabb, also a gifted scrambler who had a similar leg injury last season. Upon returning, McNabb was so intent on staying in the pocket that he eschewed running altogether -- to the detriment of his overall game. Once he began to move around again, McNabb and the Eagles immediately started playing better.
Vick should pop in a tape of the Eagles' 2001 playoff win over the Chicago Bears in which McNabb was brilliant. Using his legs to elude the pass rush, he continually found receivers so wide open there was sometimes no defender in the same shot with them. Vick, a more gifted athlete than McNabb, could wreak even more havoc on a defense if he learns this skill, and extend his career in the process.
* * *
Readers of this column from the Football Network website (mom and dad, you know who you are) know that I typically focus more on the college game. When the major Division I schools get back on the field for the bowl season in a few weeks, that will again be the case. For now, there's not a whole lot of college news, but I do have an update on one previous item.
Two weeks ago, I spent some time railing against the circus at Auburn, where the President and Athletic Director seemed to be taking orders from a booster in attempting to find a replacement for Tommy Tuberville -- without firing him first.
Since that plot was exposed, the school practically had to beg Tuberville to stay, and this week gave him a one-year extension, through 2008, to the new deal he signed after last season. Only in the wacky world of college sports can a coach go from the verge of the unemployment line to a contract extension merely for appearance sake.
The Auburn situation is worth watching, because there's no doubt the school undermined Tuberville's credibility with recruits by courting a replacement behind his back. It's doubtful the one-year contract extension will do much to smooth over the issue. And a college coach is worthless if he can't recruit. All that has been ensured by the school's underhanded dealings with Tuberville is that when he is fired, it will be even more expensive.