Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
28 Aug 2005
by Mike Tanier
On a Tuesday morning practice after Denver's preseason opener against the Texans, Mike Shanahan stopped a special teams drill to chew out his coverage units. The next day, Shanahan kicked rookie Brandon Brower out of a special teams drill for giving a poor effort.
Why is Shanahan so steamed at his special teams? Against the Texans, the coverage teams made some mistakes, giving up a 31-yard return after a short kickoff on one play. The blocking units were worse, giving rookie return man Darrent Williams little room to run. The team finished 22nd and 23rd in the NFL in special teams DVOA in the past two years, so they put a premium on special teams in the offseason, drafting Williams and signing punter Todd Sauerbrun, and Shanahan wants to see dividends.
His mid-week tongue-lashing had mixed results against the Niners. Punt returner Charlie Adams had 39- and 29-yard returns late in the game, putting some serious pressure on Williams. But the coverage units still weren't sharp, Sauerbrun had a punt partially blocked, and even Jason Elam missed two field goals. Against the Colts, Adams and Williams had little room to run, and the kickoff coverage teams were ordinary.
Elam, of course, should be fine. The blocked punt was Tatum Bell's fault, as he failed to stop the Niners' Keith Lewis from crashing through the line. Sauerbrun's other punts against the Niners and Colts were Mile High moon shots. And rookie kickoff specialist Paul Ernster is recovering from a hip injury and starting to place the ball around the end zone. The major problems appear to be blown assignments and a "going through the motions" attitude.
Adams' likely promotion should help shake things up. The Broncos were one of the worst punt returning teams in the NFL last year; Triandos Luke was ineffective when healthy, so the team resorted to Rod Smith as a punt returner. Adams, a third-year pro, had three punt returns in 2004, but one was a 39-yarder. His experience gives him the edge over Williams, who has tremendous talent but doesn't look comfortable in the backfield yet.
And if Bell can't get the job done as Sauerbrun's personal protector, there are other running backs on the roster looking for a role.
Depth Chart: Darrius Watts continues to sink down the depth chart, thanks to several dropped passes in the preseason, including one in the end zone against the Niners. Jerry Rice is ahead of him, and Adams' special teams performance may have earned him a roster spot. The team remains high on Watts as a prospect and won't be quick to release him ... Mike Anderson's teammates wanted him to start even before he tore up the Colts. Jake Plummer said he favored Anderson in an interview last week; no doubt Plummer likes having a blocker as good as Anderson in the backfield with him ... Bradlee Van Pelt has all but wrapped up the backup spot behind Plummer.
Third Round Pick Update: With Champ Bailey sidelined, third-round pick Domonique Foxworth has been starting and playing well. Fellow third-rounder Karl Paymah, currently the nickel corner, has also had a solid camp. Return man Darrent Williams, the second round pick, has also been effective in nickel packages, but his 5-foot-8 frame limits him. When Bailey returns, look for the Broncos to play mix-and-match with the three defensive backs: Williams or the 180-pound Foxworth can line up against small slot receivers, the 200-pound Paymah against big slot receivers and small tight ends. Wait, you were thinking of some other third round pick?
I have no particular fondness for Maurice Clarett. I didn't want him to win his suit against the NFL. I don't think 19-year-olds belong in the NFL. I think the league's "three years after high school" policy is legally dubious, but I would be pleased if the league and the NFLPA added airtight language to the collective bargaining agreement setting a minimum age for league entry.
When I covered Clarett for Sports Forecaster two years ago, he stuck me as callow, immature, and moody, a pouter tied a little too tightly to his mom's apron strings. He struck me as a young man all-too eager to accept the worst advice and take the easy way out whenever possible.
In other words, he seemed like a teenager. And of course he was. And now he's 21 years old, old enough to buy a beer but not necessarily old enough to make brilliant career decisions.
We expect our young athletes to be preternaturally mature like Peyton Manning, or so overwhelmingly gifted like LeBron James that they can be instantly encased in a multi-million dollar cocoon, protecting them from minor judgment lapses. But Clarett was neither of those, nor was he a vicious, violent thug like Lawrence Philips. He's a talented kid who doesn't like to be uncomfortable and doesn't realize that discomfort is part of growing up. He's like the former students who e-mail me or see me on the street and tell me how college didn't work out, how they're going to work at Wawa for a year until they figure things out. Or he's like I was at 21, screwing up my first job because I still had one hand on a keg tap.
I think, though, that I'm the only sportswriter in the world who was ever 19 years old, or 21, or who ever knew anyone that age. The ESPN sports-yakkers, all 300 of them, have lined up to take their shots at Clarett in recent weeks. Jim Rome, the PTI guys, Joe Theisman, you name 'em, they all piled on. There's something unseemly about middle aged journalists incessantly bashing a near adolescent, not for drinking and driving or beating a girlfriend or lying to Congress about steroids, but about nursing an injury and reacting badly to the pressures of training camp. It was all overblown, self-righteous, and lazy: potshots taken at a target that was already crashing to earth.
Clarett was the last of 37 players drafted in the third round this year. For the other 36 players, their efforts to make their teams are minor news: Four Downs news, not "Around the Horn" news. If Rome or Steven A. Smith mentions Clarett again, they should be required to put together a couple of intelligent sentences about third-rounders like Nick Kaczur or Leroy Hill. That way, we'll know they are actually talking about football, not just whipping the most convenient mule.
The Chiefs faced a double-whammy at linebacker for years. Their starters weren't very good, and there was almost no depth behind them. The only thing worse than watching Shawn Barber and Kawika Mitchell play was worrying that they would get hurt and force Quniton Caver into the lineup.
This year, the linebacker problem appears to be solved. Free agent Kendrell Bell, Mitchell, and rookie Derrick Johnson are the starters. And there is plenty of depth behind them.
Bell didn't play in the team's first two preseason games, but he's not hurt; the coaches are just limiting his work to keep him healthy. Johnson has been playing with the first team but is clearly still learning. The big story in the preseason has been Mitchell, who seemed to catch on to Gunther Cunningham's scheme late last season and has picked up where he left off in exhibition play.
Behind the starters are rookies Kris Griffin and Boomer Grigsby, second-year players Rich Scanlon and Keyaron Fox, and veterans Gary Stills and Scott Fujita. Griffin, an undrafted rookie from Quahog -- oops, Indiana, Pennsylvania -- has been starting in Bell's absence. Scanlon and Fox made names for themselves in minicamp, though Fox has been battling injuries. Grigsby, a fifth round pick, may be Mitchell's backup in the middle. Stills is one of the best special teamers in the NFL. Fujita appeared to be the odd man out before a great game against the Cardinals. He has experience as a starter and has proven effective as a pass rusher.
Hardly lost in the shuffle was former starter Mike Maslowski, who hasn't played since injuring his knee late in the 2003 season. Maslowski has been working hard at rehab but won't be ready for the start of the season. The Chiefs made it clear that they would re-sign Maslowski if/when he's ready to play, but the linebacker is battling back from tibial osteotomy, a major procedure that often marks the end of an athletic career.
Depth Chart: If Trent Green gets hurt, the Chiefs are officially done. Todd "Blow This Out Your Speakerboxx" Collins has a fractured hand. Damon Huard completed one pass in 12 attempts against the Cardinals. James Killian, the rookie from Tulsa, was 5-for-20 against the Cardinals' third string. Jonathan Quinn, so awful that the Bears released him, is back to provide additional comic relief (Quinn was somewhat effective against the Seahawks on Saturday). What does Carl Peterson have against real backup quarterbacks? Collins backed up Jim Kelly, Huard backed up Dan Marino, so maybe the Chiefs should try to get former Elway backup Tommy Maddox from the Steelers (good luck). Or they could get Gary Kubiak or Bill Musgrave out of the coaching booth, or sign Jeff Lewis, or ...
Disorderly Conduct: What they taught me in college journalism classes: 1) "dog bites man" is not news; 2) "man bites dog" is news. 3) "kicker breaks bouncer's nose" is real news. But the mainstream press is ably handling the barroom hijinks of Lawrence Tynes. And Collins (who climbed onto a speaker at a bar and refused to get down two weeks ago). And Green. And Greg Wesley. And Junior Siavii (okay, hotel room hijinks). None of the incidents should have a major impact on the Chiefs. Tynes is struggling in preseason, but the team hasn't brought in another kicker. Collins has no business being in the NFL at this point anyway. Wesley and Savaii aren't expected to miss any time. And Dick Vermeil is likely to set curfew for 6:00 PM from now on.
The Cornerbacks: Eric Warfield will miss four games with a suspension. He'll be replaced by a familiar face: Dexter McCleon. Free agents Ashley Ambrose and Dewayne Washington couldn't beat McCleon for the starting job; one of them will probably be released. The #1 CB is Patrick Surtain, the guy who got beat for a long touchdown by Darrell Jackson in the first quarter on Saturday night (and almost gave up another long touchdown). The Chiefs secondary has just one interception in three preseason games.
Stop reading if you have heard any of this before:
Randy Moss smokes a lot of pot. Oh, my, stop the presses. Moss admitted to a being a (lower case) bud man to Bryant Gumbel, and the national media went into the histrionic overdrive they usually reserve for petulant third round draft picks who take too long to shake off a pulled groin. But San Francisco Chronicle columnist Peter Hartlaub reminds us that it takes more than a little weed to get locals to react. "In the liberal Bay Area, where there are more pot clubs than Krispy Kreme franchises, the Oakland Raider's casual weed smoking admission on HBO's 'Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel' merited about 12 seconds of discussion." Wait a minute: shouldn't there be exactly the same number of pot clubs and Krispy Kreme franchises, ideally right next door to each other?
Kerry Collins runs hot and cold. He was humming against the Texans, with two touchdown passes, including a bomb to Doug Gabriel. But just as he seemed invincible, he threw a red zone pass right to Houston DB Marcus Coleman. Collins commits red zone turnovers the way Bay Area potheads ingest Krispy Kremes. Then there was the safety against the Cardinals; Collins was nailed by Chike Okeafor and fumbled through the back of the end zone, making the score 3-2 (get the bullpen up). Collins redeemed himself with a 40-yard strike to Moss.
Al Davis likes suing people. He's asking the California Supreme Court for a retrial of his $1.2 billion suit against the NFL. Just keeping score, here: suing the league makes you a charming maverick if you are a multi-millionaire, but it's an unconscionable sin if you are an immature 19-year old who doesn't like playing college football for free.
Derrick Gibson is the starting safety. Gibson disappointed the team for three solid years before injuring his shoulder last August. The former first round pick makes poor reads, recognizes plays late, and can be broken down in the open field. But last year's starter Marques Anderson was released, so Gibson is back in the lineup. Look for him on the highlight reels, about one step behind the receiver scoring the touchdown. Luckily, according to Peter Hartlaub, Raiders fans will have no trouble finding ways to ease the pain.
Depth Chart: Courtney Anderson is the starter at tight end. Teyo Johnson has had a lousy camp and may not make the team. Zeron Flemister, a hard-blocking H-back type, has been getting a lot of reps as a second tight end. It makes sense that a team with two outstanding wideouts would want tight ends who block first and don't expect many passes, unlike Johnson, who is more of a poor man's Antonio Gates. Also in the mix is ... Ricky Dudley? That can't be right. Yep, the man with the hands of stone got lots of playing time against the Cardinals.
Heavy Jumbo: The Raiders opened the game against the Cardinals in a 4-3 set. Actually, it was more of a 6-1 set. 320+ pounders Warren Sapp and Ted Washington were at tackle. Tommy Kelly (300 pounds) and Bobby Hamilton (285) were at end. The outside linebackers were 285-pound Tyler Brayton and 285-pound Grant Irons. Danny Clark was the only normal linebacker. The Cardinals were in a normal two-back, two-WR set. Try running against that front.
Last Tuesday's morning practice brought a familiar sight. There was Marty Schottenheimer, fuming after a lackluster set of drills, calling the team together. There was Schottenheimer, unleashing a tirade and ordering his players to repeat the exact same set of drills. And there he was again, delivering another lecture after saying that the effort improved "marginally at best" the second time around.
It was the Marty we all know and love, mainly because none of us ever had to play for him. It was the Schottenheimer Bruce Smith complained about in Washington, the one Deion Sanders still holds a personal grudge against. And it was a coach we have rarely seen in recent weeks.
That's right: Marty has mellowed. The Chargers had just eleven two-a-day workouts this year. There were few full-pad practices. Schottenheimer instead emphasized weights and conditioning, favoring an up-tempo camp over the trench warfare that made him notorius.
"Marty has changed tremendously from when I was with him my rookie year (1996) in Kansas City," linebacker Donnie Edwards told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I remember we had a stint where I think it was nine or 10 days in a row, with pads. Things have changed a lot." Schottenheimer admits that he has re-evaluated his strategy: with year-round conditioning programs and minicamps, the vicious practices of yesteryear are unnecessary and possibly counterproductive.
Hear that, Primetime? It's safe to go to San Diego if you tire of life with the Ravens.
Depth Chart: Drayton Florence will start at cornerback opposite Quentin Jammer. Sammy Davis will be the nickel corner, with Jamar Fletcher in the dime ... Shawne Merriman played with the third string against the Giants. He won't start (Ben Leber and Steve Foley are the outside linebackers), but he should soon earn a role in a blitz package.
Everybody Hurts: All three top draft picks have missed time in camp. Merriman battled toe and hamstring injuries but is back on the field. He is running well but looks lost at times. Luis Castillo has a sprained ankle. Vincent Jackson has missed a lot of time with a strained Achilles tendon; he's essentially fifth on the depth chart right now and won't make an impact in the early part of the season.
Tackle Technique: Learn to tackle the Matt Wilhelm way! The backup linebacker earned two facemask penalties against the Giants, and both were blatant. Kids, here's how not to do it: run full steam at the ball carrier, grab a fistfull of facemask, twist like you're trying to open a pickle jar, then let go and throw your hands up in a "my bad" shrug. For the record, Wilhelm's spot on the roster isn't completely safe.
This is the last edition of Four Downs: AFC West for 2005.
Thursday: The final Four Downs for the NFC South.
26 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2005, 10:23pm by Todd S.