AFC East: Steve Tasker
Today's question for three notable special-teamers: What are your thoughts on the NFL's decision to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line and limit the running head start of coverage players to 5 yards behind the ball?
Steve Tasker, seven-time Pro Bowler for the Buffalo Bills:
"The Oakland Raiders might not have to cover a kick all year because Sebastian Janikowski can put the ball out of the end zone. With the extra 5 yards, he'll be able to do it through December and January. It gives the coaching staff a chance to not keep any special-teams players. They can put their offensive linemen on kickoff coverage for conditioning drills. They're not even going to hit anybody.
"For each team, it comes down to the guy who can put his foot on the ball as to how much change there will be. It used to be if you could keep the return guy inside the 25, it was a good cover. Now, it's going to be inside the 20.
"After this modification, if it continues to be a problem with guys getting blown up on kick covers, it may go the way of the jump ball in basketball. Maybe you score and the other team just gets the ball on the 20 with no kick. Maybe you have a kickoff to open the game and then the second half. They may move away from that special team all together.
"It would be a break from tradition, but the league never has been averse from doing that anyway. The rules aren't sacred. The fan interest is. If the fans don't want to see it, they'll take it out."
Jim "Crash" Jensen, former Miami Dolphins do-it-all contributor:
"It's definitely going to make kickoffs safer, and that's the whole idea of it. A lot of the injuries happen on the return. I thought they should have put the touchback to the 25-yard line, though [as in the original proposal], to keep the return a part of the game. It's not going to be as exciting for the fans, but the game will be a little safer.
"I don't have a problem with the safety of the players. I'm starting to feel it myself, you know? I'm in a lot of pain. If you play in the NFL for 12 years, you're going to feel it.
"It's a totally different game, the one that I played compared to the one today. There are a lot more rule changes. They eliminated the wedge [of more than two players]. You can't cut the wedge. But to say [today's players] are softer? I don't think so. It's still the gridiron."
Jay Feely, Arizona Cardinals kicker
"I've spoken to some return guys like Leon Washington and LaRod Stephens-Howling and, obviously, our opinions are very different when it comes to whether we're pleased. The older kickers are very happy. One of the impacts will be it will almost de-emphasize the kickoff role because it'll be easier to get touchbacks, easier to get balls into the end zone. It won't create as much separation between somebody who has a great leg and somebody who doesn't.
"I don't think you'll see nearly as much directional kicking anymore. Coaches will allow you to just kick away. I'm going to try to convince my coach -- whenever we get back to playing -- to allow me to do that. The distance between kicking outside the numbers and trying to get it into the corner compared to a straight line down the middle of the field is close to 5 yards farther. If you're kicking straight down the middle and not changing your steps or worrying about being accurate, you can swing away. Because you're 5 yards further up, you'll see more coaches kicking away, and I think that change in scheme could double the number of touchbacks.
"The 5-yard limit rule [for the coverage team] could make it tougher for onside recoveries. They're not going to get to the ball as quickly, and you tried to time that up so they had as much speed to cover those 10 yards as quickly as possible."
Bill Polian doesn't think so.
Polian assembled the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls. Five members of those teams already have bronze busts in Canton: quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receiver James Lofton, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. Bills owner Ralph Wilson has been enshrined, too.
"It seems like every second or third year somebody gets inducted into the Hall of Fame and we have a reunion and get to reflect on it," Polian told me Thursday night. "It's a big family that has stuck together and still stays in touch.
"It's a blessing. To be associated with guys like that? It's a special, special group."
Polian insisted more Bills belong in the Hall of Fame and is bothered that wide receiver Andre Reed hasn't gotten in yet. Reed could get the Canton call Saturday. He is among the 15 finalists who will be evaluated by the selection committee for five openings on the 2011 class.
"It's shocking to me that he's not viewed as a shoo-in Hall of Famer," Polian said. "Andre Reed was our biggest big-play player on a team that went to four Super Bowls. How he could not be included in the Hall of Fame when he's one of two guys who dominated is beyond me.
"Go with the facts. Don't go with perception. Go with reality because if you go with reality, you have to say Andre Reed belongs, without question. To me, it's just baffling."
That would give the Bills five Hall of Famers who played or coached all four Super Bowl teams. Lofton played on only three of them. Bills owner Ralph Wilson also has been inducted.
Put that group up against the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls in four years.
"The teams are comparable," Polian said.
There aren't that many slam-dunks from all three of New England's championship rosters.
Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are surefire Hall of Famers. Beyond that, Adam Vinatieri has a strong case for his heroics, but there are no guarantees for kickers. Jan Stenerud is the only Hall of Fame kicker or punter. Maybe defensive end Richard Seymour or cornerback Ty Law will be considered.
Beyond that, much of the Patriots' roster was comprised of semi-stars such as linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, who went to one Pro Bowl apiece, and transients.
That the 1990s Bills will send more players to Canton than the 2000s Patriots is fascinating to me. It shows how incredible the Patriots have been at navigating free agency and the draft to maintain a consistent winner with a fluctuating roster -- and how truly magnificent that collection of talent was for Buffalo.
"That'll never happen again," Reed told me last week. "You won't see an assemblage of players like that -- at least not in Buffalo. I know that."
Polian is an advocate of Tasker's induction into Canton, too.
"Steve Tasker was, pound-for-pound, the greatest special-teams player ever to play," Polian said. "If you value special teams, then Steve Tasker belongs in the Hall of Fame. I am also an unabashed Ray Guy fan.
"I've seen every player that's played in this game since 1977, and I can tell you Ray Guy literally changed the game -- as did Steve Tasker."
So that would make at least seven Hall of Famers from the 1990s Bills if Polian had his way.
When you consider how much talent Polian gathered with the Bills -- and his success with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts since then -- there's no way you can't consider Polian himself.
But for now, Andre Reed is on deck.
"Andre is clearly, clearly, clearly deserving to be inducted," Polian said. "By any measure in the era he played, Andre Reed is a Hall of Famer."
"Then I remember the Apache gunship flies over," Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker told Sullivan. "They weren't supposed to fly low, but it seemed to me I could see the whiskers on the guy hanging off the sides. It was as though he wasn't just flying for the ceremony. He was watching over us, like, 'Go ahead and play because I'm on guard.' That was awesome."
The game, however, will forever be remembered for how it concluded.
Scott Norwood's 47-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right. The Bills lost by a point.
The Buffalo News spoke with two dozen members of the team and uncovered intriguing new information.
For instance, holder Frank Reich revealed for the first time that Norwood kept hooking his practice kicks to the left before the game, possibly impacting his fateful kick. Long snapper Adam Lingner told the story of how Norwood's successor, Steve Christie, noticed the laces were not spun to the proper place, suggesting Reich's hold wasn't as good as believed.
Sullivan also wrote about the brotherhood that was forged and how much the 1990s Bills loved to party. Another piece laid out all the "what-if" scenarios that could have made the difference. The two biggies for me: Bruce Smith's inability to strip Jeff Hostetler on a second-quarter safety and failing to stop Mark Ingram on third-and-13 in the third quarter.
In the style the Buffalo News now handles its Monday coverage of games, Gaughan breaks down Super Bowl XXV with a quarter-by-quarter report of how the game unfolded.
Connors added a feature on Van Miller, "the man who will forever be known as the voice of the Bills," and his recollections of the Bills' heyday. The story includes Miller's call of Norwood's kick.
Tasker was not offended by the idea and essentially said he appreciated it -- even though he handled the role that would be most impacted by the practice.
"No question, you're not supposed to trip someone, but I think this is an overreaction," Tasker told ESPNNewYork.com reporter Rich Cimini. "This isn't stealing signs or illegal taping or somebody sabotaging something. It was just a guy, reacting."
The NFL implemented the so-called Steve Tasker rule, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to deter gunners from intentionally running out of bounds to avoid a press.
Dolphins safety Reshad Jones was flagged for the Tasker rule two punts before Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi stuck his knee into Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll, creating a firestorm of controversy.
"You think this is the first time [a trip] ever happened? Come on," Tasker said. "Guys were always giving me extra shoves. You don't want to see someone get hurt, but it's not a big deal. Why wouldn't you give a guy a forearm shiver? Everyone on the sideline is part of a team and they all want to win. Shoot, even the doctors are competitive.
"If [the Jets] are coached to do that, so what? Call a penalty on them. If a gunner is going to use the sideline as a weapon, like I did, why wouldn't you want to form a road block? There's nothing wrong with that as long as it's within the rules."
Steve Tasker and Qadry Ismail told Palm Beach Post reporter Brian Biggane that Marshall's injury seemed rather fishy to them. Marshall left the Week 11 game against the Chicago Bears in the second quarter. He has missed the past two games and is questionable for Sunday's rematch with the New York Jets at the Meadowlands.
That wasn't the first time respected former players questioned Marshall's conditioning. NFL Network analysts Sterling Sharpe, Solomon Wilcots and Mike Mayock were critical of Marshall's laziness in the waning moments of a Week 3 home loss to the Jets.
Ismail suggested Marshall was quitting on the Dolphins. Ismail, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, made a mental note of Marshall being worked on by trainers before the Bears game.
"It was like, 'I'm glad he's taking care of his body. It puts him in a better position to win,' " Ismail said. "But after that it caught me off guard to see him get hurt. And it's been surprising to me that it's taken him this long to come back from it. When guys do things differently, like he does, they normally come back a lot faster than that.
"I'll be curious to see how motivated he plays [Sunday against the Jets]. In other words, I'm not expecting too much."
Marshall's season has been a serious disappointment. The Dolphins made him the NFL's highest-paid receiver after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos for two second-round draft picks.
He has decent reception numbers but just one touchdown catch. In his past two games he has been flagged for chucking a ball into the stands and for throwing one at former Broncos teammate Jay Cutler on the Bears' sideline.
Marshall claimed he was keeping his lack of production in perspective.
"The great players around the league want to be put in position to help the team," Marshall said Thursday. "But sometimes, like Coach [Tony] Sparano taught me and is trying to teach me still, some days it's a shot glass and some days it's a wheel barrow.
"You got to understand that, and you just got to try to be mentally tough, and it's a struggle when you're used to catching a bunch of balls or being so involved. But we got to do what's best for the team and hopefully get a couple wins here and have some things fall into place for us and get in that postseason."
The AFC East is well represented, with three of their four experts backing up Sports Illustrated's declaration that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has had an MVP first half.
MVP: Tom Brady
Offensive player: Tom Brady
Defensive player: Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson
Head coach: Steve Spagnuolo
Rookie: Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh
Team: Patriots and Giants
MVP: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady
Offensive player: Peyton Manning
Defensive player: James Harrison
Head coach: Bill Belichick
Rookie: Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh
Team: No choice, but says Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Jets are best four teams in the NFL.
MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Offensive player: Philip Rivers
Defensive player: Clay Matthews
Head coach: Todd Haley
Rookie: Sam Bradford
MVP: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers
Head coach: Todd Haley
Rookie: Ndamukong Suh
Brian Galliford of BuffaloRumblings.com looks at the training camp battle at nickel defensive end.
If you've always wanted to play golf with Bills legend Steve Tasker, you're in luck.
Joe Buscaglia of Buffalo-area radio station WGR 550 doesn't think this C.J. Spiller holdout is a big deal.
The Buffalo News' Jay Skurski thinks the Bills' running back by committee approach will annoy fantasy owners.
Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown has received a continuance on his DUI case.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross could be looking at some tax breaks.
Like many, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees wasn't real happy with the way he was treated by former Dolphins coach Nick Saban.
The Palm Beach Post's Ben Volin looks at Thursday's supplemental draft.
New England Patriots
Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork has lost his Super Bowl ring and he needs your help finding it.
More Wilfork requests: Keep lineman Logan Mankins.
Free agent wide receiver Terrell Owens would "definitely be open" to playing for the Patriots.
Looking at the supplemental draft from a Patriots' perspective.
Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer is "an animal" and he has a YouTube video to prove it.
New York Jets
The Boston Globe's Albert Breer is scouting the Jets with some help from New York Daily News beat writer Manish Metha.
NESN.com's Mike Cole writes that Eli Manning is New York's top quarterback until Mark Sanchez wins.
Sanchez is paying his teammates to work out with him.
In its countdown of greatest Florida players of all time, 1970 Jets first-round pick Steve Tannen checks in at No. 15.
Buffalo Bills: Steve Tasker, special teams.
Claim to fame: Tasker perhaps is the greatest special-teams ace in NFL history. He was a notable weapon on Buffalo's four consecutive AFC championship teams in the 1990s.
Case for enshrinement: Tasker was so dominant in his role, the NFL changed its Pro Bowl rules to include special-teamers on rosters. He went to seven Pro Bowls, putting him in select company, and was named the MVP in 1993. He has been a semifinalist on the Hall of Fame ballot four times. The NFL Network named him the ninth-best player -- of any position -- not in the Hall of Fame.
Tasker blocked seven punts and made 204 special-teams tackles. He forced seven fumbles and recovered six. He returned kickoffs, punts and held on extra points and field goals. As a receiver, he caught 51 passes for 779 yards and nine touchdowns.
Case against enshrinement: Special-teamers just don't get enshrined. Kicker Jan Stenerud is the only pure special-teamer with a bust. Legendary punter Ray Guy isn't in. No return specialist has been honored, either.
The common retort to that is one of the silliest sayings in football: Special teams are one-third of the game. Sorry, but that's not true. If each team plays a perfect defensive game and forces the opponent to go three-and-out on every possession, then special teams are needed once every four plays. And if football people truly believed special teams were that integral to the game, they would draft special teamers rather than fill out those units with offensive and defensive reserves.
Parting shot: I'd like to see more special-teamers recognized in Canton. But unless there's a substantial change in selection philosophies, Tasker won't make it into the Hall of Fame.
Miami Dolphins: Jake Scott, safety.
Case for enshrinement: Scott is one of the most overlooked players in NFL history. His career was relatively short, but it burned brightly. For five years in a row, starting with his second season, Scott went to the Pro Bowl and was named first- or second-team All-Pro.
Despite playing only nine NFL seasons, Scott recorded 49 interceptions, a total that ranked 18th all time when he retired. Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston played 14 seasons and finished with the same total. Scott still holds the Dolphins record with 35 interceptions. He added 14 more in three seasons with the Washington Redskins. Scott recovered 13 fumbles in his career.
He also was a slick punt returner. He holds Miami career records in returns and yardage and ranks third in average.
Case against enshrinement: There's a stigma that comes with playing on the No-Name Defense. Only one player from that great unit, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, is in the Hall of Fame, and his cause certainly was helped by previous work with the Boston Patriots and by remaining in public view as a broadcaster.
Scott, meanwhile, became a recluse. He moved to Hawaii and for a time avoided attention at all costs. He reportedly declined the chance to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame because he wouldn't commit to attending the ceremony.
Also working against Scott, who never has made the cut to 15 modern-day finalists, is the dearth of safeties enshrined in Canton. Only seven have been inducted.
Parting shot: Scott didn't play long enough to get traditional consideration. His best hope would be through the senior committee.
New England Patriots: Adam Vinatieri, kicker.
Claim to fame: If Vinatieri is not the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history, then he's in a short conversation. He won the Patriots' first two Super Bowls with field goals in the final seconds.
Case for enshrinement: Vinatieri has kicked for six Super Bowl teams, played in five Super Bowls and won four rings -- three with the Patriots and one with the Indianapolis Colts. He directly delivered a pair of Lombardi Trophies for the Patriots. He kicked a 48-yarder as time expired to win Super Bowl XXXVI and a 41-yarder with four seconds left to win Super Bowl XXXVIII.
In blizzard conditions at the end of the infamous Tuck Rule game, Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard field goal with 1:39 left in regulation to force overtime and then won it with a 23-yard field goal.
Vinatieri has been an All-Pro twice. He has kicked a record-tying five field goals in a postseason game twice and owns multiple playoff and Super Bowl records. He has scored the most points for a kicker (34) in Super Bowl history and converted the most field goals (seven) and extra points (13). His 177 postseason points rank first.
Case against enshrinement: Stenerud is the only true kicker in the Hall of Fame. Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson will have to get in first, and the idea of quadrupling the number of kickers (if you consider Vinatieri the next one inducted after Andersen and Anderson) won't be an easy sell to the voters.
Vinatieri has led the NFL in scoring and field goals once and probably won't finish with attractive enough career stats. At 37 years old and showing signs of slowing down -- he played six games for the Colts last season because of hip and knee surgeries -- and he ranks 15th in scoring and 13th in field goals made. Players such as John Carney, Matt Stover and John Kasay have more. Vinatieri has kicked almost 100 fewer field goals than Jason Elam. Nobody envisions Canton when they think of those guys.
Parting shot: Vinatieri provided two of the most indelible memories in Patriots history. As his career stands now, however, two big kicks won't overcome the circumstances of his position.
New York Jets: Joe Klecko, defensive lineman.
Case for enshrinement: Klecko was the first player to make the Pro Bowl at three positions. He went as a defensive end in 1981, a defensive tackle in '83 and '84 and a nose tackle in '85. To illustrate his importance, the Jets made his No. 73 the third number retired in club history after Joe Namath and Don Maynard.
Unlike the Fearsome Foursome or Purple People Eaters, the Sack Exchange doesn't have a single Hall of Fame representative. While Mark Gastineau's histrionics garnered the most attention, Klecko was the most complete player of the four. He was a dangerous pass-rusher and nasty against the run.
Klecko unofficially recorded 20.5 sacks in 1981 and notched at least one sack in 10 straight games, a franchise record.
Case against enshrinement: What hurts Klecko is that he somehow remained relatively anonymous in New York. He was overlooked because he played thankless positions and was trumped by Gastineau's sack dances.
Klecko also played on some lousy teams. The Jets went to the playoffs only four times during his tenure (1977 through 1987). Once was in the strike-shortened 1982 season and he was hurt for the 1986 postseason.
Parting shot: Klecko never has made the cut of 15 modern-era finalists. He might need to rely on the senior committee.
Buffalo's best shot was its first, and not merely because it came down to a last-second field goal attempt that went wide right. That squad was its most complete on both sides of the ball.
The 1990 Bills are known as one of the best teams not to win the Super Bowl. Their 13-3 record is tied for the best in franchise history. They ranked first in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense. Kelly led the NFL in passer rating, Thomas led in yards from scrimmage and Smith was voted defensive player of the year.
The Bills rolled through the regular season. They went undefeated at home and seemed to be surging down the homestretch. They outscored their first two playoff opponents 95-37, but went up against the NFL's best defense when they met the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
The Bills led the Giants by nine points in the second quarter and held a two-point lead in the fourth quarter. But the Bills trailed by a point when Scott Norwood lined up from 47 yards away for what would have brought Buffalo its first major championship. The kick sailed wide of the upright.
Most impressive win: The Los Angeles Raiders went into the AFC Championship Game at Rich Stadium with only four losses while allowing an average of 16.4 points. The Bills annihilated the Raiders 51-3 with the help of six interceptions. The score was 41-3 at halftime.
Norwood not to blame: Did Norwood really choke? To claim he did is to suggest a successful kick was probable. The fact is, Norwood never had made a field goal longer than 49 yards in his six NFL seasons. That meant 47 yards was about the limit of his range. He made 6 of 10 attempts from 40-plus yards that season. The fateful attempt also was on grass, a surface he was kicking on for only the fourth time.
1964: The Bills won their first of back-to-back AFL championships with a squad that ranked first in total offense and defense. They outscored opponents by an average of 11 points a game.
1991: The Bills rebounded from their "Wide Right" heartbreak, repeating their 13-3 record and reaching the Super Bowl again. They scored at least 34 points nine times.
1993: Buffalo won the AFC championship a fourth straight time. The offense ranked sixth in total yards, while the defense ranked fifth in yards allowed and had a league-high 47 takeaways.
In three straight posts, I mention NFC West blogger Mike Sando.
The guy's all over the place.
Sando has completed a project to determine the five greatest draft classes since 1967, when the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft.
Sando, using a criteria that sorts through individual awards and championships, concluded the best were 1983, 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985.
A lot of AFC East stars played roles in making those drafts great.
Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Ken O'Brien and Tony Eason were among that glorious quarterback class of 1983. Miami Dolphins receiver Mark Clayton and Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Darryl Talley also were selected that spring.
Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, found in the fifth round, was a highlight of the 1996 class.
The 1981 class included New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil, New England Patriots tackle Brian Holloway and outside linebacker Hugh Green, who later played for the Dolphins.
Bills running back O.J. Simpson was the first pick if the 1969 draft. Ten picks later, the Dolphins took defensive end Bill Stanfill.
Another notable No. 1 Bills pick started off the 1985 draft: defensive end Bruce Smith. The Bills also snagged receiver Andre Reed in the fourth round. Special-team ace Steve Tasker was a ninth-round pick for the Houston Oilers before making seven Pro Bowls for Buffalo. Another big name that year was Jets receiver Al Toon.
US PresswireAre Tom Brady and the Patriots on the fall, and Mark Sanchez and the Jets on the rise?
This is the long wait until next year. Or in the case of most teams, the year after that and the year after that and the year after that.
The only folks not in a rush for the 2010 season to begin are in New Orleans. But when they sober up sometime around Bastille Day, they'll be ready to get after it again.
Even Buffalo Bills fans, who haven't seen their team in the playoffs for a full decade, find enough reasons to return to the box office every offseason and fill Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Hope and the pursuit of glory are powerful stimulants.
With that in mind, let's cast our gaze forward in the AFC East and consider which team will experience the next big payoff.
Who from the AFC East will return to the Super Bowl first?
The New England Patriots have been the default favorite for many years, and they might remain the safest pick.
"The Patriots would be a good guess," said former Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker, an analyst for CBS Sports. "But the Patriots have a lot further to go. The Jets are stronger."
A sampling of accomplished former AFC East players who still follow the game closely raised many recurring sentiments:
- The Jets at least have pulled even with the Patriots.
- The Patriots are getting older and have more roster concerns.
- If quarterback Mark Sanchez can develop, the Jets will be the team to beat for a long time.
- The Miami Dolphins are on the rise but still trail the Jets and Patriots.
- The Bills are a mess and don't belong in the conversation until they show significant improvements on the field.
ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, a former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach, already has picked the Jets to represent the AFC in next year's Super Bowl.
"The Patriots are closer to getting back to the Super Bowl, but the better long-term future would be the Jets," said Steve DeOssie, who spent a dozen years in the NFL and hosts a Patriots postgame show on Boston sports radio station WEEI.
"That window of opportunity is closing for the Patriots in two, three maybe four years on the outside. If Sanchez develops, the Jets have a very bright future for the next seven, eight, nine years."
Sanchez has emerged as perhaps the central figure in the entire division. His progress will influence the direction of more than the Jets.
Sanchez endured a turbulent rookie campaign in which he threw 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in the regular season. But the Jets dialed him back down the home stretch. He played well enough to get them into the AFC Championship Game, where they held a lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter.
"At worst case, the Jets have pulled neck and neck with the Patriots," said former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper, sports anchor of Miami's CBS affiliate. "The thing that keeps me from going ahead and saying [the Jets have overtaken the Patriots] is what to make of Mark Sanchez. You've seen the good and the bad with him. It's hard to give the free pass on him being the next guy."
The Jets have so much going for them: a fearsome defense, an extraordinary offensive line, a relentless running game. They feature an envious number of stars with many years ahead.
Tasker noted the offense should get better with some help at receiver and stressed how remarkable it was the Jets' defense remained dominant without studly nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who will be back.
"Sanchez played well in that championship game, but as we saw with Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, every year's different," Tasker said. "When you start giving these guys more and more things to worry about and more and responsibility, sometimes these guys take a step backward. That doesn't mean I think Sanchez is going to flop, but I don't think a great, big, giant step forward this offseason is something that can be assumed."
If Sanchez merely utilizes the assets around him, then the Jets should be fine. If he can mature into a bona fide franchise quarterback, then the Jets will be dangerous.
"He doesn't have to be in the neighborhood of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but if Sanchez can get into that second tier of quarterbacks, that would be enough," said DeOssie, who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants before playing with the Jets and Patriots.
"He has to be able to, at given times, put the team on his shoulders and win a game. But if he develops into a competent or slightly better than average quarterback, the Jets easily have the inside track."
To take the next step, the Jets' offense needs to drift away from such a domineering run game and attain something that resembles balance. The Jets need to augment their pass attack to be able to win a game when they trail by a couple scores.
The deeper into the playoffs a team goes, the more likely an opponent will be able to put points on the board in a hurry. The Saints were only the second team in Super Bowl history to come back from 10 points down and win.
The Patriots finished their season with a clunker performance. The Baltimore Ravens went into Gillette Stadium and annihilated New England in the first round of the playoffs.
When discussing New England's future, there are more questions than there've been in years.
"We're starting to see their age," Bokamper said.
Seemingly out of habit, though, analysts still mention Bill Belichick and Brady like they're shamans who can cure whatever ails the organization.
The Patriots crave pass-rushing help. They might need cornerbacks. Brady's best friend on the field, Wes Welker, is coming off a serious knee injury.
"It'll be a big question if Wes Welker can come back and have a good season," Tasker said. "Randy Moss seems to be on the backside of his career.
"That said, it doesn't mean Bill Belichick won't figure something out, and Tom Brady makes everybody better."
Today's question, in light of the party that refuses to end in New Orleans, is:
What would happen in Buffalo if the Bills won the Super Bowl?
Former Bills punter and linebacker Paul Maguire:
"If I could get back into the bar business for one day, it would be the day the Bills win the Super Bowl -- and maybe for the week after that. Then I could shut down. Buffalo is a hard-hat town. You give them a reason to celebrate, by God, they're going to celebrate. And they'll show you how.
"You don't ever stop celebrating the Super Bowl. I remember in the 1960s, when we won the AFL championship. I still lived in San Diego, and when I got back to training camp the following summer, they were still celebrating. And that was just the AFL championship. The people in Buffalo, if they ever would have won, my God ... They, above anybody, after being there four times, it would be truly hard to give up and every time you had a drink you'd have one to the Super Bowl champion. I don't think that would ever go away."Nine-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, whose rookie season came two years after Buffalo's last Super Bowl appearance:
"Oh, man. The city would shut down for a month. And I'm not joking -- a month. This is the type of place you'd see the repeat of what's going on in New Orleans right now. They're starving. They want it as much as New Orleans wanted it or the people who wanted it for New Orleans. People who root for other teams would want that for Buffalo. The mayor would make a proclamation. All the kids would be out of school. The towns would change the names of the streets to the names of the players.
"The people of Buffalo are hearty people. Not much has gone right for them recently from a financial or economic standpoint. But everyone looks out for each other. It's the type of place that makes you feel like when you walk into your mom's house and smell the food that's on the stove. The only label they put on you is whether you're about family or a hard-working guy. That's all that matters here.
"When I was playing, I met a lot of fans who told me that's all they wanted in life. 'I want to live to see the day when the Bills win the Super Bowl.' Unfortunately, some of them haven't."Bills Wall of Fame member Steve Tasker, who lost four straight Super Bowls:
"The rapture would run just as deep as in New Orleans. The thing, when you talk about Buffalo or Green Bay or the smaller-market teams that have been around forever, you're talking about every person in that town growing up with that team as their team. It's not the same as cities like New York or Los Angeles. It's you dad's team, your uncle's team, your cousin's team, the teacher's team, the cops, the lawyers, the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. It's a family team."
AP Photo/Mike Groll
If Rex Ryan's New York Jets score a win this Sunday, the AFC East will send two teams to the playoffs. Who knew?
Shame on me for not giving the division I cover more credit. All along, from the dog days of summer until three days ago, I predicted a solitary AFC East team would make the playoffs. I was certain the only way to reach the postseason was the division title, and there wasn't much disagreement.
The New England Patriots were the clear favorite, Las Vegas' choice to win the Super Bowl. They won 11 games without Tom Brady the year before, and he played enough like his old self in training camp to make fans salivate.
Beyond that? The other divisions were more stacked. The wild cards were coming from the AFC North and AFC South. Each had sent two teams in 2008 and seemed even more competitive.
AFC East teams, meanwhile, had four of the league's seven toughest schedules based on last year's win-loss records. Compiling a record worthy of a wild card seemed impossible, and that was before the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos zoomed out of the blocks to make the wild-card scene even more crowded.
So I had my reasons. Good reasons -- at the time.
Turns out, they were wrong reasons.
Three AFC East teams could have made the playoffs this year and two probably will. The Patriots already are in. Improbable as it seemed before Christmas, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins still are alive.
But guess what? I didn't predict the Dolphins, 1-15 in 2007, were going to win the AFC East in 2008 either.
What am I? Some kind of moron?
"How could you even think the Jets would be out of the playoffs?" CBS Sports analyst and former Buffalo Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker asked me. "How dare you, with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback and the remains of an Eric Mangini-coached football team? Who could not see that coming?"
As expected, the Patriots clinched the division championship on Sunday. About four hours later, the Jets, whose head coach had pronounced them dead, were in control of their own destiny with one winnable game to play.
That it took an absurdly fortuitous series of events for the Jets to be in this situation is irrelevant. Fact is, if they defeat the Bengals at the Meadowlands on Sunday night, the Jets are headed to the postseason with a 9-7 record. The Patriots won 11 games last year and didn't qualify.
Three weeks ago, the Dolphins had a marvelous shot to be in the Jets' position but bumbled the opportunity.
The Dolphins could have been only the fourth team to overcome a 0-3 start and make the postseason since the NFL adopted its current playoff format. They were so doomed in September, having dug themselves a rarely escaped hole and having lost MVP Chad Pennington for the year with a should injury.
Still, had Miami not sleepwalked into their past two games, we might be talking about the possibility of three AFC East teams qualifying for the tournament.
Who could have foreseen it? Certainly not the likes of me.
"It is a joke," Tasker said of preseason predictions. "It's an exercise in futility. You don't know who's going to show up. The Patriots were a lead-pipe cinch to win the division, and they almost fall flat, too. If the Patriots lose that game to Buffalo on opening day, they're done.
"You have no business picking two AFC East teams to make the playoffs this year. If you did, then you might as well have picked Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City and Buffalo. And JaMarcus Russell for MVP."
The AFC East doesn't get the credit it deserves for its competitiveness. ESPN.com's power rankings panel grades the AFC East as the third-worst division ahead of the NFC West and (barely) the AFC West.
The panel rates the AFC South as best, but the AFC East can finish with a .500 record against the division with victories over the Houston Texans (at home versus the Patriots) and the Colts (visiting the Bills and vulnerable if they decide to empty their bench or put their punter at quarterback or something). The AFC East also went 9-7 against the NFC South, valued as the fourth-best division.
And yet the AFC East is on the verge of sending two clubs to the postseason. The NFC South will send only the New Orleans Saints. The Indianapolis Colts probably will be the AFC South's lone representative.
Of course, the Jets could lose Sunday.
Maybe I will have been right all along.
The only players with strong AFC East ties are both Buffalo Bills: receiver Andre Reed and special-teamer Steve Tasker.
Reed has the best chance to make it eventually, but it won't happen this year. Between four and seven new members are enshrined each year, and Reed must stand in line behind that's getting longer, especially at his position.
First-year candidates include all-time touchdown leader Jerry Rice, NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith, receiver Tim Brown and safety Aeneas Williams. Players who have been on the cusp in the past include receiver Cris Carter, who played one season for the Miami Dolphins, and pass-catching tight end Shannon Sharpe.
Carter and Reed both finished in the Board of Electors' top 10, but didn't make the cut. Reed wasn't in the top 10.
The list of 25 will be pared down to 15 modern-era candidates -- plus Seniors Committee nominees Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little -- and announced Jan. 7.
The class of 2010 will be revealed the day before Super Bowl XLIV.
|Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire|
|Bills fans aren’t happy with receiver Terrell Owens.|
There's a growing sentiment in Western New York that the Buffalo Bills need to send a message to the locker room and the fans by benching Terrell Owens for his lackadaisical play.
The question was posed Monday on Buffalo all-sports radio station WGR, and the callers were in agreement. Owens' drops and halfhearted efforts are hurting the team.
I reached out to Bills legend Steve Tasker on Tuesday to get his take on T.O.
Tasker has unique perspective. He has remained close to the organization and is familiar with how the Bills think and operate. He's a member of the Bills' preseason broadcast booth.
But Tasker doesn't let his relationship with the Bills prejudice his opinions. He is a color commentator for CBS, and called Sunday's game between the Bills and Carolina Panthers.
"There's some times when you could tell he was not interested in being out there," Tasker said. "But I don't think it was prevailing. Maybe a handful of plays. I don't think it's indicative of the effort he's putting in. There are times when his frustration's shown through a little bit, but the guy's still trying to play hard.
"I felt when they signed him he was their best offensive player. I still believe that. The guy gets open down the field. He gets behind people. He's a receiver that needs to get away from the line of scrimmage to be effective. He's not a crossing-route or possession receiver. He's a home-run hitter. I do think he still has some stuff in the tank."
Owens is on pace for his worst season since 1996, when he was a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers. He has 18 receptions for 242 yards and one touchdown.
Owens dropped a couple of passes Sunday and declined to compete on a deep ball that was underthrown.
"You can tell by his body language when he's not going to be involved in the play," Tasker said. "But the guy still is not having any trouble getting open deep. The drops have followed him all throughout his career, and that's always an issue with fans because it's easy to see.
"I don't think that the team has any problem with the way he prepares to play. I don't think the team has any problem with his ability to get separation. They may say something to him about his body language, but there's good reasons for a guy like Terrell Owens to be a little bit frustrated with how things are going in Buffalo on offense."
Tasker said the reasons Buffalo's offense is struggling is lackluster quarterback play and an inexperienced and injury-ravaged offensive line -- not Owens.
"It seems like the last couple of weeks they've regressed on the offensive line," Tasker said. "That's going to spread problems around. Nobody's going to be happy."
Tasker, whose position of record was wide receiver but he made seven Pro Bowls as a special-teamer, wasn't overly concerned with the way Owens has conducted himself on or off the field.
"There's more vocal discontent at the wide receiver position than any other position in football," Tasker said, "because they depend on so many other people to get them the football. It's not unusual for a wide receiver to pout or spout off about not getting the football.
"A lot of guys are frustrated on that offense."