NFC East: Zach Thomas

Kevin Turner's rugged road

March, 16, 2011
3/16/11
1:06
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Kevin TurnerMike Cellucci/ESPN.comKevin Turner, who played fullback in the NFL for eight seasons, was diagnosed with an incurable neuromuscular disorder 10 months ago.
Kevin Turner couldn't sit still on that April afternoon in 1992. The Alabama fullback tried to watch the NFL draft for as long as he could, but a combination of tension and monotony increased with each pick. Every 15 minutes another name that wasn't Kevin Turner was announced.

Turner stepped into the backyard of his parents' Prattville, Ala., home for some fresh air and hopefully a diversion. He still laughs at the memory of what happened next. His father bolted out the door and blurted the big announcement: "The Boston Patriots!"

Turner gently corrected him. Actually, it was the New England Patriots. They selected him 71st overall, the second fullback off the board.

The moment was exhilarating for a father and his only child. Raymond Turner coached Kevin from 5 years old until junior high and nearly wept the first time he saw his son enter Bryant-Denny Stadium decked in crimson and white.

Now his son was headed to the National Football League. He loaded up his maroon 1991 Ford Bronco and, with Guns N' Roses blaring, headed off to Massachusetts, where he began an eight-year, $8 million NFL career, met his future wife and scored some touchdowns.

Yet if he knew then what he knows today, he'd be torn about pulling out of Prattville.

"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner said. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."

Turner is divorced. He went bankrupt on bum real estate investments. He was addicted to painkillers for a couple of years. None of those problems are the worst of it.

Ten months ago, the 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Turner's arms don't work well, his hands even less. His pinch strength, a measurement of the strength generated by the thumb and forefinger, is one pound. That's comparable to an infant. He doesn't have enough might to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.

Forget about buttoning a shirt. It can take him half an hour to wiggle into his blue jeans with nobody there to help, but he said, "socks are the worst."

Kevin Turner
Todd Warshaw/Allsport The Eagles made Kevin Turner the NFL's second-highest-paid fullback in 1995.
The body that produced 30-plus receptions five times for the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, made him the second-richest fullback in the NFL and impressed then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells as a prototypical West Coast fullback is failing.

"It's quite a different way of life," Turner said. "It's pretty embarrassing, but cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom becomes very difficult when you can't use your hands. These are just things you don't think about.

"You have to be very creative. I can't pull down my zipper. I got what I call zipper-getters. It's a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom."

Doctors have told him his speech probably will be the next to go. His throat and jaw muscles cramp, reminding him ALS is as relentless as he was on the football field.

Eventually, it will kill him. Maybe within another year or two. ALS is undefeated.

Recent scientific data strongly suggests repeated head trauma can cause a condition that mimics ALS. The neuromuscular disorders are virtually identical -- so alike the difference is detectable only by autopsy.

"Football had something to do with it," said Turner, who has no family history of ALS. "I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."

To raise research funds and awareness about sports-related head injuries and ALS, he formed the Kevin Turner Foundation.

Dr. Ann McKee said Tuesday the latest information shows NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with ALS than the average citizen. McKee was the lead neuropathologist for the study that linked head trauma in collision sports to the ALS variant.

The effects of head trauma are a hot-button NFL issue. The league has included ALS as an automatically qualified condition under the 88 Plan, which assists former players with medical expenses related to head injuries.

Cases continue to emerge about retired players experiencing early dementia, memory loss, depression, aggression or erratic behavior. Last month, four-time Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson committed suicide after complaining of severe headaches, vision impairment and an increasing inability to form coherent sentences.

Parcells said he was "sick" to hear about Duerson's death. Duerson played for Parcells on the New York Giants' 1990 championship team. Parcells coached Turner for two years in New England.

"Look, we all know that this is hazardous to your health," Parcells said in a somber tone last weekend. "We do know that. And fullback is a very high-collision position. It's not like playing wide receiver or corner. He's either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled or blocking somebody.

"I've seen a lot of big collisions in football. We all know when we sign up for this that there's an element of risk involved."

'A special kid'

Turner wasn't a superstar in terms of decorations. He didn't go to Pro Bowls. But he was far from an NFL commoner.

"He had a heart that just wouldn't stop," Raymond Turner said of his son. "From the time he put the gear on to the time he took it off, he was a competitor. Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle. It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do."

The Eagles loved Turner enough that they signed him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus when he became a restricted free agent in 1995 after two seasons with the Pats. They outbid the Washington Redskins. Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys was the only fullback with a bigger contract.

The bemused Patriots couldn't match the Eagles and settled for a third-round draft choice as compensation. New England fared well with the transaction. The draft pick turned out to be running back Curtis Martin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," former Patriots coach Bill Parcells said.
But at the time, Parcells didn't want to lose Turner.

"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells said. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid.

"He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."

Turner's best season was 1994 with the Patriots. When not blocking for Marion Butts, Turner made 52 receptions, gained 582 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns -- all career highs. Turner scored an overtime touchdown in Week 11 to beat the Minnesota Vikings. His catch in the left corner of the end zone was Drew Bledsoe's 45th completion on his 70th attempt, a record that stands by one throw.

Whatever glory Turner experienced came with a price. He absorbed punishment. That's how players often win their team's Ed Block Courage Award, as Turner did with Philadelphia in 1996. They're admired for their perseverance.

Turner knows of only two concussions he suffered in the pros. One came with the Patriots in 1994 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He twisted awkwardly while trying to catch a pass near the goal line, and his head struck Riverfront Stadium's hard artificial turf.

The other known concussion happened with the Eagles in 1997, while Turner was running the wedge on a kickoff return against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium.

"The next thing I remember," Turner said, "I was asking our backup quarterback, Bobby Hoying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I was looking around that stadium and could not figure it out.

"I stayed out for two, maybe three series of downs, got my senses back and finished the game. It was a fairly significant injury to my brain, and I just kept pounding on it."

Turner's father is aware football probably contributed to the ALS diagnosis. He often wonders what hit wrecked his son's brain.

Was it the wedge? Was it the time Turner collided with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle so violently at the goal line he knocked Tuggle out? Was it his final NFL play in 1999, when he barely got a piece of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett but both arms went numb for 15 seconds?

The probable answer is all of them contributed amid an accumulation of other hits that didn't register.

"I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences," Turner said. "Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block. It was part of the three points: my two hands and my head. That's how I was taught to do it."

A wicked game

McKee helps run the brain bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The center has studied 46 brains of athletes who sustained repeated, sports-related head trauma. Research indicates concussions aren't necessary to induce frightening symptoms.

Many retired NFL players, such as Turner, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler and Patriots cornerback Mike Haynes, have pledged to donate their brains for research.

[+] EnlargeDuerson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDave Duerson, who committed suicide, reportedly asked that his brain be examined.
"It's very tough now to look at the sport and not listen to the voices inside your head that are very, very much aware this game is associated with significant risks," McKee said. "And we may not fully understand the depths of those risks.

"Every month, we've been getting more cases into the brain bank and seeing more cases of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and some with this [ALS] variant. It's more and more difficult to embrace this sport as it's currently being played. With each month of this work, it just seems worse."

McKee isn't some fuddy-duddy intellectual, trying to undermine football's place in society. She was raised in a football household just outside Green Bay. Her father played for Grinnell College. She attended every game her brothers played.

"Football is a way of life there," McKee said. "It's huge. It's how we define ourselves. I'm sure I would have played if I'd have been born a boy. Football is an enormous part of my heritage. I do understand that football is so much more than a sport to people. It's what we do."

But is football evolving into a culture of regret?

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who has a long history of concussions, recently told HBO's "Real Sports" that if he had a son, the boy wouldn't be allowed to play football. Four-time Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop didn't make an edict but showed off his scars until his son decided not to play, which suits his dad just fine.

Turner's jovial patter quickly switched to an agonized sputter when asked whether his two sons should play football. Nolan, 13, has been playing for a while. Cole, who will turn 8 next month, started last year.

Turner doesn't let his kids (10-year-old Natalie is a cheerleader) drink sodas because he doesn't think it's good for them, yet football maintains a powerful influence in their family. Turner hinted he won't let Cole play this year because he's perhaps too young. Nolan's situation sounded more complicated.

"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."

Turner was 5 years old when his dad began coaching him. In many ways, it turned out well.

Colleges began recruiting him as a high school sophomore. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came to their house, but Alabama won out. The Crimson Tide chose Turner for their commitment to excellence award his junior season. He was a captain his senior season. He left with a finance degree and lived a fantasy some folks would give a limb to experience.

"If they'd have told me when I was 23 years old, in the best shape of my life and just got the dream chance of my life to play in the NFL -- first week of practice in New England, I'm in awe of Andre Tippett, Irving Fryar -- but in 17 years, you're not going to be able to pull up your pants ... you could not imagine it,” Turner said.

"Most people would say, 'If there's a 10 percent chance of that happening, I'll take my chances.'"

'You know it's coming'

Chances are, Turner doesn't have long to live. One of his doctors gave him two years. That was almost a year ago.

ALS has no cure. There are no treatments to stop or reverse it. Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond their first symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.

One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, muscles wither. Although Turner's brain will remain sharp, he will lose his ability to walk, speak and swallow.

ALS eventually reaches the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm. Suffocation and pneumonia are the most common causes of death.

"There are still times, and let me say it's not very often, in the past year where I'll sit there and become completely overwhelmed and break down and cry," Turner said. "Every now and then I'll let myself think about it. I'll see something or hear something that reminds me of the inevitable. You know it's coming."

Turner said he intends to immerse himself in his children's lives and his foundation's cause. He travels the country for speaking engagements to raise funds. Country-gospel singer Ty Herndon dedicated the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, "Journey On," to the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner and his children appear in the poignant video.

Turner’s father, meanwhile, can't help but worry. He admitted he and his wife, Myra, feel helpless -- a disconcerting sentiment when it comes to any child, let alone an only child. Raymond is 67 years old, and he's dealing with the likelihood he'll outlive his once-vigorous son. The unavoidability hit home the day a packet arrived in the mail, detailing the process of donating his son's organs.

Turner's mom and dad are considering moving from Prattville closer to Birmingham, Ala., where their grandchildren live, about 85 miles away. Raymond wants to make sure they have a father figure nearby.

"The fact that I'm healthy lets me think I'll be around to see the kids through," Raymond said. "This is not supposed to be this way. Just things you've got to think about and don't want to think about, but you've got to be realistic."

So much has transpired in the 19 years since Turner drove that Ford Bronco from Prattville to the NFL. He made it a point to swing through Manhattan on the way, getting a slice of New York-style pizza and some cheesecake from Carnegie Deli just in case his ride didn't last very long.

The possibilities were infinite. Today, they're decidedly limited. But Turner insists he will make the most of the time he has left and maybe -- just maybe -- be the first person who beats ALS.

On Tuesday night, Turner’s father pondered how amazed he was the first time he glimpsed at his son in an Alabama uniform and saw "Kevin Turner" scroll across the bottom of his television screen on draft day.

And then, he considered how pleased he is with Turner today. The feeling doesn't pertain to football at all anymore.

"I swell up and tell him so often about how proud I am of him, most part for being a man of good character," Raymond said. "That's meant more to me than anything."

Fletcher embraces Skins' new scheme

May, 6, 2010
5/06/10
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London FletcherGeoff Burke/US PresswireDespite having never played in a base 3-4 defense, linebacker London Fletcher is excited about the Redskins' new scheme.
As some of you know, I've been a bit slow to warm to Jim Haslett's new 3-4 scheme. I realize that Redskins fans have somehow convinced themselves that this transition will be relatively painless, but I'm not so sure.

There's this one little issue of the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league biding his time in Nashville while Haslett installs the defense that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan fell in love with during his football sabbatical. Albert Haynesworth signed up for a 4-3 scheme when he left the Titans for the riches of free agency and he's not convinced the nose tackle role will play to his strengths. For his part, Shanahan doesn't seem to particularly care what Haynesworth thinks and he has attempted to trade him.

But even if Haynesworth eventually finds his way back to Ashburn, Va., it's not as if the Redskins have the perfect personnel for the 3-4. As many as 15 teams are expected to feature a 3-4 base defense -- three down linemen and four linebackers -- in 2010, so it's not like the Skins have arrived early to the party. If they need a point of reference, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be a good resource.

He helped the Packers transition to a 3-4 scheme in '09. As my NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert noted, the Packers had the No. 1 defense in the league in early December. But the Packers allowed the Steelers and the Cardinals to combine for 1,000 yards of total offense in two subsequent games, one of which ended their season.

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Cowboys' chemistry experiment pays off

January, 14, 2010
1/14/10
4:15
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Tony Romo/Terrell OwensAP PhotosQuarterback Tony Romo had arguably his best season as a pro after the Cowboys cut wide receiver Terrell Owens.
IRVING, Texas -- It would be easy to point to the removal of a certain wide receiver from the Cowboys' locker room as the impetus for this season's inspiring playoff run -- and it's not far from the truth. Quarterback Tony Romo wasn't going to reach his full potential as long as Terrell Owens continued to be a polarizing voice at Valley Ranch, and that's the main reason owner Jerry Jones bit the bullet and released the wide receiver last March.

I've talked to enough people within the Cowboys' organization to know that Jones' son, Stephen, is the one who finally got through to his father. Jones, who wasn't inclined to release T.O. at the end of the '08 season, listened to several voices. But I'm told that Stephen stubbornly fought to convince his father that Romo couldn't flourish until T.O. was extracted from the locker room. And once T.O., Tank Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones were gone, the owner introduced us to his catchphrase of the offseason, a "Romo-friendly offense."

[+] EnlargeStephen Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireStephen Jones was reportedly the one who convinced owner Jerry Jones to cut Terrell Owens.
I wrote in training camp that there was something different about this team, but it didn't matter unless the locker room chemistry experiment resulted in a playoff win. Now that the Cowboys head into Sunday's divisional-round playoff game in Minneapolis as the hottest team in the NFC, it appears that the experiment worked.

Against all odds and conventional wisdom, Jones retained Wade Phillips in the aftermath of a 44-6 beatdown in Philly. He soon announced that Phillips would be adding "defensive coordinator" to his job title, which is probably the way it should have been in the first place. Phillips made too many excuses for his players during his first two seasons and didn't hold them accountable at crucial moments along the way. But no one ever doubted the man's credentials as a defensive coach. Phillips' hands are all over a defense that has been dominant over the past four games and held opponents to 250 points during the regular-season, the second-lowest total in the league.

He also helped himself in the personnel department when he spoke on behalf of free-agent linebacker Keith Brooking, a player he coached when he was with the Falcons. The Falcons had a great young linebacker in Curtis Lofton and decided to move forward without the 33-year-old Brooking. The Cowboys' scouting department knew that Brooking was bigger than Zach Thomas and thought he'd be a much better fit at inside linebacker.

Thomas played well for the first six or seven games of '08, but his production started to fall off midway through the season. He never felt comfortable in Phillips' 3-4 and both parties were ready to move on. Brooking showed up for the Cowboys' offseason program and immediately started turning heads. Phillips said the linebacker tried to win every single sprint during conditioning drills and younger players such as Anthony Spencer and Bobby Carpenter began to notice Brooking's uncommon work ethic.

[+] EnlargeKeith Brooking
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesKeith Brooking has been a valuable leader on defense.
When I talked to Brooking on Tuesday, he said there wasn't one specific moment when he became a leader on this team. But other players have told me that he started to become more vocal as the season unfolded. During last Saturday's broadcast of the Cowboys-Eagles game, NBC's Cris Collinsworth told a story that Brooking had fought a defensive back in practice when the player was mouthing off after a play. Brooking confirmed the story Tuesday, though he chose not to add any details. But it's hard to miss the way players react to him when he breaks down the huddle before games. Running back Tashard Choice said earlier this week that Brooking reminds him of professional wrestler-turned-actor The Rock.

The Cowboys also added former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh during free agency. He solidified an area that had been in a state of flux since Darren Woodson retired because of a back injury in 2004. Sensabaugh has been a better player than Pro Bowler Ken Hamlin, who hasn't lived up to his big contract.

"When all hell breaks loose, you want Sensabaugh on your side," said one highly ranked member of the organization who asked not to be identified. "He's highly, highly respected by pretty much everyone in the organization. There's a toughness and a swagger to his approach that other guys just feed off of."

Of course, one of the biggest changes this season was the meteoric rise of Miles Austin. He's a younger, faster version of Owens -- without all the drama. And if you ever hear a scout say they knew Austin could be this good, they're lying.

Even when Romo was moving the ball down the field last season, it was always in the back of his mind that he needed to keep T.O. happy. I'm not sure that any quarterback can have long-term success with that type of scenario, and Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia would probably have my back on that statement.

With his words, Jerry Jones will still tell you that locker room chemistry is overrated. But his actions say something else.

First-half analysis: Cowboys were awful

September, 28, 2009
9/28/09
10:18
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley


ARLINGTON, Texas -- I'm sorry you guys had to watch that first half. The Cowboys had a chance to come out and score right away, but they stalled in the red zone on their first possession. You had Felix Jones shredding the Panthers defense -- and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett inexplicably went away from him. Nick Folk missed a 40-yard field goal wide right and the Cowboys never really recovered. Here are some other quick-hit observations:
  • I'm really impressed with the work left tackle Jordan Gross is doing on DeMarcus Ware. And I'm baffled by how seldom the Cowboys are matching up Ware against right tackle Jeff Otah. They finally flipped him over to Otah's side in the second quarter.
  • The Cowboys finally got a turnover in the first half. Mike Jenkins made a play on a moon ball from Jake Delhomme. But the Cowboys didn't capitalize on the turnover.
  • When the Cowboys backup nose tackle Junior Siavii is on the field, he's getting absolutely no push up the middle. Delhomme didn't see any pressure on those two nice passes to Dante Rosario. When Jay Ratliff's off the field, I think the Cowboys lose a lot.
  • I was very impressed with the way Keith Brooking played in the first half. He did a nice job fighting off blocks and he's pretty solid in coverage. It looks like Brooking and Bradie James are doing a pretty nice job communicating. I think Brooking is a definite upgrade over Zach Thomas.
  • Jason Witten had a big first half. He was Tony Romo's target on eight passes -- and he caught all eight. He has 71 yards receiving. The Cowboys wide receivers combined for two catches in the first half. That's not going to get it done.
  • The Panthers obviously have a tough time stopping Felix Jones. So why aren't they feeding him the ball?

NFC East training camp preview

July, 22, 2009
7/22/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys
Training camp site: San Antonio

Campfires: The one legitimate camp battle that will take place features second-year cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins. Terence Newman's the obvious starter, but Scandrick, a fifth-round choice, will challenge Jenkins, a first-round pick. Scandrick was the more complete player his rookie season, but Jenkins has vowed to win the job -- via his blog.

 
  Al Bello/Getty Images
  Dallas needs Roy Williams to improve upon his first season with the Cowboys.

It might be interesting to keep your eye on the situation at left guard, where Kyle Kosier will try to hold off Montrae Holland and last year's fill-in, Cory Procter. Kosier has more experience, but Holland might have more athletic ability.

The running back rotation also will be intriguing to watch. The Cowboys have hinted about starting Felix Jones and returning Marion Barber to his cleanup role. I'm not sure it's the right way to go, but the Cowboys will certainly take a long look at it. Also take a look at the competition for the No. 2 receiver spot. Miles Austin appears to have the inside track, but Patrick Crayton's not ready to concede.

Camp will be a downer if ... Tony Romo and Roy Williams can't get on the same page. They had their moments during offseason workouts, but they didn't wow anyone. Perhaps Williams' dedication to weightlifting and conditioning will pay off.

I think the Cowboys also need Anthony Spencer to make a strong move at outside linebacker. If he doesn't take the next step or he ends up with another injury, it would certainly be a downer.

Camp will be a success if ... Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's able to implement a more balanced offense that utilizes the Cowboys' depth at running back. Garrett's under a lot of pressure to live up to his immense paycheck.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Success also means strong performances from free-agent additions Igor Olshansky and Keith Brooking. The Cowboys need Brooking to be an upgrade over Zach Thomas, who never looked totally comfortable at his inside linebacker spot in the vaunted Wade Phillips 3-4. One more thing: The Cowboys need to agree to an extension with DeMarcus Ware. That would help alleviate any potential tension with the team's best player.

Surprise, surprise: I think Sam Hurd will have an outstanding camp and could actually challenge for the No. 2 receiver role. He really impressed me during OTAs -- when he wasn't working with the trainers.


New York Giants
Training camp site: Albany, N.Y. (University at Albany)

Campfires: I'll have my eye on the running back competition from the start. Danny Ware wants to battle Ahmad Bradshaw for the right to replace Derrick Ward. But he has a long way to go to win the trust of the Giants' coaches. Rookie Andre Brown could emerge during camp as a key contributor. The rookie running back has won universal praise early in his time in the Meadowlands.

 
  William Perlman/US Presswire
  Defensive lineman Chris Canty is one of the new faces the Giants are counting on.

At linebacker, free agent Michael Boley was supposed to shore up some of the deficiencies in coverage. Now he's banged up and will serve a one-game suspension. The Giants will have some strong competition at linebacker with players such as Chase Blackburn, Bryan Kehl, Danny Clark and the talented but oft-injured Gerris Wilkinson.

Of course, we'll all be watching the competition at receiver. Can Hakeem Nicks break into the starting lineup in training camp? We're about to find out.

Camp will be a downer if ... The Giants don't see some of their young receivers take the next step. Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith should be serviceable as the starting duo. But the team would love for either Sinorice Moss or Mario Manningham (or both) to emerge as a viable threat. That would free up Nicks and Ramses Barden to sort of ease their way into the regular season.

Oh, and we can't forget Super Bowl hero David Tyree. He's looking for another book deal.

Camp will be a success if ... All of the new additions on defense (Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty, Boley, etc.) mesh early. I think Canty will flourish from the defensive tackle spot and he'll still be able to slip outside and rush in some situations. Those players should make Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora even more effective.

I also think it's time for Kenny Phillips to have a breakthrough season. If he has a strong camp, I think he'll be headed for Pro Bowl consideration.

Surprise, surprise: Give me Brown at running back. The Giants were thrilled to land him in the fourth round and Jerry Reese thinks he'll be in the mix for the No. 2 role behind Brandon Jacobs.


 

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Monday Beastlines

April, 13, 2009
4/13/09
11:14
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Cowboys

Eagles

Giants

Redskins

Monday Beastlines

March, 30, 2009
3/30/09
11:27
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Cowboys

Eagles

Giants

Redskins

The hits keep on coming for Dallas cop

March, 29, 2009
3/29/09
5:05
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse for Dallas police officer Robert Powell, former Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas has come forward with another allegation. Last week, Powell made national news for preventing former Eagles running back Ryan Moats from seeing his dying mother-in-law following a routine traffic stop.

Thomas' wife, Maritza, was arrested by Powell last July and spent three hours in the Dallas County Jail after being pulled over for an illegal U-turn near a popular mall. Thomas described the punishment as "excessive," but said he didn't come forward at that point because he didn't want to "cause a stir."

"This in no way compares to what happened to Ryan Moats and his family," said Zach Thomas, who played for the Cowboys in '08 and is now a free agent. "But we wanted to tell our story, not knowing how many others have been affected by Officer Powell. We know the vast majority of the Dallas police force are good and professional people, but this guy just seems excessive."

Maritza Thomas was issued five tickets at the scene, four of which were later dismissed. Thomas, who was in the process of moving fom South Florida to Dallas, said her mother was with her when the stop took place. And that's where the most damning part of the family's allegation crops up:

"My mom was begging for him to let her go to the apartment that was five minutes away to get the paperwork (proof of insurance)," Maritza Thomas said. "He unbuckled his holster, and she got scared."

Powell's attorney questioned the timing of Thomas' allegation and said there was nothing inappropriate about his client's decision to make an arrest.

"I do understand that an arrest on multiple traffic charges happens often and is absolutely proper under these circumstances," Bob Gorsky said. "Often, when there are multiple charges, an arrest made and bond posted, some of the charges from a single event are later dropped."

I'm not sure whether Powell will keep his job, but it's safe to assume he'll be off the street for a while.

The NFC East free-agency report card

March, 12, 2009
3/12/09
3:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

The NFL's free-agency period hasn't officially ended, but for the purposes of this column, let's pretend it has. We're still waiting for the Philadelphia Eagles and their millions in cap space to join the party -- unless you're hanging your hat on the Andrews brothers.

Anyway, we're handing out grades this afternoon based on the first two weeks of free agency in the NFC East. The Washington Redskins have spent the most money (shocker), but you can't buy this blog's love. Now brace yourself for this year's NFC East premature free-agency report card.

New York Giants: A-

The Giants have been the most efficient team in the division during free agency. General manager Jerry Reese calmed down a lot of folks about the wide receiver position by continuing to hold out hope for Plaxico Burress. If you read between the lines, it sounds like the Giants are feeling pretty good about Burress' chances of avoiding jail time -- and I don't think an NFL suspension will be more than four games.

With that in mind, Reese set out to address some key areas in the Giants' defense. Former Falcons linebacker Michael Boley will immediately become a starter, and his coverage skills will put the Giants in a much better position against running backs such as Brian Westbrook and Felix Jones. When the Eagles isolated Westbrook on Antonio Pierce during a December win, the results were devastating.

The Giants also stepped back and watched film of how the defensive line wore down in the second half of the season. Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck had an outstanding season, but he was carrying too heavy a load in December and January. By signing former Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and former Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty, the Giants bolstered their defensive line to the point where Fred Robbins could be used as trade bait. Paying Canty $7 million a year seems like a steep price, but Coughlin -- and his buddy Bill Parcells -- are convinced that he will become a force inside. In the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme, Canty was often an afterthought as a pass-rusher. After playing against Canty for several seasons, the Giants thought his height (6 feet 7) and power would allow him to collapse the pocket.

Former Texans safety C.C. Brown (the Giants love ex-Texans) should provide depth behind Michael Johnson and Kenny Phillips. Coughlin and Reese love creating competitive situations in training camp -- and they've done that at linebacker, safety and on the defensive line. Don't you think most teams would like to have Mathias Kiwanuka coming off the bench? Same goes for Jay Alford and Robbins. Heading into the draft, the Giants are the best team on paper. Of course, some people thought the same thing about the Cowboys last season.


Washington Redskins: B

A lot of teams use free agency as a jumping-off spot for the draft. Under Dan Snyder's reign, the Redskins have used the draft as more of an offseason diversion.

First of all, let me say that Albert Haynesworth is one of the most dominant defensive tackles we've seen in years. When he was in the lineup, the Titans were an elite defense. When he was out because of injury, the defense was pedestrian.

My fear with Haynesworth is that he had the best two years of his career when the Titans (and the rest of the league) were dangling that lucrative carrot in front of him. How will Haynesworth perform with a full bank account?

  2008: Best of Albert Haynesworth
  NFL.com Video
  Albert Haynesworth shows why he is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL.

Well, we're about to find out. But honestly, signing DeAngelo Hall to a long-term contract is the bigger risk. He was a divisive force in the Falcons' locker room and he obviously didn't make it with the Raiders. He performed well on a $500,000 deal in half a season -- and the Redskins guaranteed him $22.5 million. The Redskins have been down this road before -- and it never works.

Haynesworth has a reputation for making life easy on his fellow defensive ends, but the Redskins aren't offering him much in Andre Carter and the aging Phillip Daniels.

Demetric Evans was actually a decent pass-rusher, but the Redskins let him get away. You better hit on a pass-rusher with that No. 13 pick, in part, because it will be Sunday afternoon before you make another selection.

Bringing in guard Derrick Dockery is a good move, but you still have holes to fill on the line. Jon Jansen, Randy Thomas and Pete Kendall aren't going to cut it. The injuries (and age) led to last season's downfall in the second half of the season. If the Redskins don't do more to address the line, the signings of Hall and Haynesworth won't mean that much.


Dallas Cowboys: B -

No matter how you got him (and the trade was weird), Jon Kitna's a smart addition. This team was held hostage by the backup spot last season. Now, the Cowboys' playoff chances aren't shot if Tony Romo suffers another injury. And don't underestimate the chemistry that Kitna had with Roy Williams in Detroit. I heard T.J. Houshmandzadeh say recently that Kitna was a tremendous leader in the Bengals' locker room, even when he was backing up Carson Palmer. Romo needs to become a better leader, so maybe Kitna can help him out.

For the money, bringing in Igor Olshansky to replace Canty at defensive end is a solid move. Canty's the more talented player, but the Cowboys got a nice deal on Olshansky. The guaranteed portion of the salary has been reported as $6 million, but a league source has told me it's closer to $8 million.

Bringing in Keith Brooking will be an upgrade over Zach Thomas at inside linebacker. Brooking played for Phillips in this exact same inside-weakside spot in Atlanta. At age 33, he's a declining player. But there's a chance the Cowboys could get two more productive seasons out of him. Now, the Cowboys have to either find a wide receiver or an offensive lineman in the second round of the draft.

Of course, the biggest move was releasing Terrell Owens. In my mind, that's addition by subtraction in terms of the locker room. In terms of what happens on the field, you could see a drop in production early in the season. But if Jason Garrett can build this offense around the three-headed monster at running back, the Cowboys will have a shot at the playoffs.


Philadelphia Eagles: C-

This may seem harsh to some of you, but is there anything that excites you about what the Eagles have accomplished so far? Stacy Andrews can replace Jon Runyan at right tackle, but this still leaves a gaping hole on the left side. The Eagles could package their two first-round picks and move up to draft someone like Jason Smith of Baylor, but that's not Andy Reid's style -- at least not lately. It's more likely they trade down and acquire some additional picks.

Sean Jones is a serviceable replacement for Brian Dawkins, but the one-year deal tells you that the organization doesn't have a ton of faith in the guy. Former Raiders safety Rashad Baker is more of a special-teams guy.

But if the Eagles are biding their time to make a run at Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, all can be forgiven. They probably would have to part with one of their first-round picks and possibly a third-rounder. Does that seem like the type of thing Reid and Joe Banner would do? Right now, Donovan McNabb's scratching his head like the rest of us.

Brooking should be a better fit than Thomas

March, 1, 2009
3/01/09
4:18
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

First off, let me acknowledge a far more important and potentially tragic story that is emerging on Florida's Gulf Coast, where two NFL players have apparently been lost at sea. One of the players, Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, is represented by the same agency that had the late Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, who covered Williams when he played for the Broncos, confirmed with agent Troy Asmus that Cooper was one of four boaters missing Sunday. Anyway, it just felt wrong to start blogging away about the NFC East when something like this was unfolding. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those four men.

And as we make an awkward transition, I did think that Tim MacMahon of Dallasnews.com made a valid point about the Cowboys' new inside linebacker, Keith Brooking. There's a tendency to basically say the Cowboys replaced one aging player (Zach Thomas) with another -- and that's accurate. But Thomas always seemed like a fish out of water in Wade Phillips' 3-4. As MacMahon points out, Brooking enjoyed two of his best seasons working under Phillips. He's played the weakside inside linebacker spot before, so this shouldn't take a huge adjustment.

Like Thomas, Brooking's known as an excellent guy to have in the locker room. Thomas wasn't able to make an immediate impact in that area. Now we'll see if Brooking has any luck.

Brooking makes sense in Dallas

February, 28, 2009
2/28/09
6:48
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Brooking
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis spent the past few weeks lobbying to be a Dallas Cowboy, but in the end, the club went with another 33-year-old linebacker. On Saturday afternoon, the Cowboys announced they'd agreed to terms on a three-year contract with former Falcons Pro Bowler Keith Brooking.

Brooking was the last remaining member of the Falcons' '98 Super Bowl team. He was a huge part of the community, and he played an important role in helping the organization and its fan base through the Michael Vick debacle. Brooking will replace veteran inside linebacker Zach Thomas in the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme. Thomas said he never felt totally comfortable with the scheme, but the Cowboys think Brooking's combination of size and speed will make him a better fit.

Brooking might not be as recognizable as Lewis, but he's certainly had a distinguished career. He played under Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips when he was the defensive coordinator in Atlanta from 2002-03. Last season, he had 102 tackles on the Falcons' playoff team. He's also known for his durability. Brooking hasn't missed a game since 2000. This isn't as splashy as signing Lewis, but it's probably better on the bottom line. Every decision right now is being made with DeMarcus Ware's future in mind. Jerry Jones had to have a sick feeling when he saw Albert Haynesworth receive $41 million guaranteed from the Redskins. I'm sure Ware's agent will want to use that number during negotiations. Fortunately, Ware's agent is Pat Dye. He's the same guy who represents Brooking.

Here's what ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli wrote about Brooking on Friday.

Double Coverage: Ray Lewis

February, 25, 2009
2/25/09
10:00
AM ET
 
  Tom Szczerbowski/US Presswire
  Ray Lewis in Dallas? That transaction isn't likely to take place.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and James Walker

Ray Lewis is a man who understands leverage.

That's why the free-agent linebacker spent part of the offseason trying to convince anyone who'd listen that he's always dreamed of playing for the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys would love to grant Lewis' wish, but they're busy trying to make DeMarcus Ware one of the richest men in football.

But try to suspend reality for a moment and imagine that Lewis really could end up with the Cowboys.

AFC North blogger James Walker and NFC Beast blogger Matt Mosley discussed this topic via e-mail earlier this week. In December, Mosley and Walker participated in what was hailed as the most successful blogger debate of the '08 season. Now, we've actually given this feature a name. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the first installment of Double Coverage, which includes English subtitles.

Mosley: James, it's a pleasure to be visiting with you in such an informal setting. I'm always more comfortable when thousands (perhaps millions) of people are eavesdropping. Anyway, I don't think the Cowboys are one player away from "getting over the hump." Honestly, it sort of depends on what you think the "hump" is. If it's winning a playoff game for the first time in 12 years, then certainly Lewis would help in that process. I think the man has way too much pride to allow his team to play like dogs in a do-or-die game like the season-ender against the Eagles.

But if Jerry Jones has learned anything over the years (and that's debatable), it's that you don't pay age. Lewis may still have a couple good seasons left, but you never know how he might fit into another defense. He has so much history with the Ravens that he knows every nuance of the defense. Another veteran, Zach Thomas, had a really tough transition in Dallas. I don't think it's guaranteed that Lewis flourishes in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.

Walker: I'm with you, Matt. It depends on the definition of "getting over the hump." For Dallas, it's winning -- or at least getting to -- the Super Bowl. The addition of Lewis alone won't do that for the Cowboys. Without Lewis, Dallas' defense was No. 8 in the NFL last year. With Lewis, who is 33, the unit might move up a notch or two, but I doubt it translates into a Lombardi Trophy.

The Cowboys are paper champions not because of their linebackers, but because their most important player doesn't show up in important games. I hate to put so much blame on one player, but if I had a nickel for every big game Tony Romo has won, I'd have ... no nickels. Lewis cannot help in that respect.

Mosley: You're being a little harsh with Romo, but I'll let it slide this time. I'm wondering what your take was on linebacker DeMarcus Ware's recent comments about Lewis. Sounds like Lewis was lobbying him pretty hard.

Walker: Ware had no reason to lie about this, so I do believe there is truth to it. But what Lewis allegedly said is what a lot of free agents say at some point: They want to play in Dallas. I've heard Cincinnati Bengals receivers Chris Henry and Chad Ocho Cinco say the same thing this past year in the AFC North. I'm sure there are several others who have repeated the same sentiment. If Lewis speaks, obviously it makes bigger headlines, but talk is cheaper than money. Unless Lewis is willing to take a pay cut to play in Dallas, then putting the star on Lewis' helmet isn't really his dream scenario. Much of this decision will come down to the highest bidder and that team should be Baltimore, because Lewis means more to the Ravens than any other team.

(Read full post)

Mosley's Afternoon Mail Call

February, 11, 2009
2/11/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Jack from Portland, Oregon writes: I like your blog on the NFC East. Redskins question: As a genious reporter, have you approached someone like Joe Gibbs to find out why Dan Synder is so reliant on [Vinny] Cerrato and why he doesn't get a top-notch GM? Maybe Snyder doesn't know how or who could make the team better?

Mosley: Jack, I talked to Gibbs a couple of times last season, but we didn't hit that topic. He has a great relationship with Snyder and he wouldn't take the risk of speaking poorly of someone who's close to the owner. I certainly know that Cerrato has a lot more power in the organization now that Gibbs is gone. And based on that second round in the '08 draft, Cerrato deserves to take some heat. But he and Snyder have been friends for a long time. It would take something dramatic for Snyder to change the power structure in the club's personnel department. Snyder has fired Cerrato once -- and that was when Marty Schottenheimer walked in the building. Once Schottenheimer was fired, Cerrato was right back in his office. So don't hold your breath for any changes.


Fhova left the following note in my mailbag: How come the Eagles cannot go for Hakeem Nicks? I know the primary aim will be to replace the O-line guys and maybe get a tight end. They already have depth in o-line and Reid has never picked a tight end in the first round. As far as running back goes, the top backs did not play the wide receiver/running back role in college like Westbrook and Buckhalter, so I doubt they'll take one in the first round.

Mosley: It wouldn't surprise me if the Eagles looked to trade down in the first round. You could package the No. 21 and 28 picks and move into the second round to select an offensive tackle. Depending on how far you move down, Eben Britton out of Arizona could be there or Oklahoma's enormous Phil Loadholt. I know that Todd McShay has the Eagles picking Brandon Pettigrew out of Oklahoma State at 21 and Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno at 28. That doesn't sound like the Eagles to me. You can find a complementary back in the later rounds of this draft. And there's a much bigger need at offensive tackle. And let's not go too crazy over the depth along the offensive line. I like how Nick Cole played at guard, but I'm not ready to call him a starter. We also need to see how Shawn Andrews comes back from a tumultuous 2008.


Matt P. dropped this note by the house last night: Hey Matt, love the blog, and thanks for answering my questions in the past. That being said, do you see Dallas making a splash at someone such as Ray Lewis in the free agency market? If so, do you believe it would make a difference in team chemistry in the locker room? I know Tony Romo may not believe in this, but I am sure it has much to do with the team's lack of execution.

Mosley: I don't see the Cowboys doing much of anything in free agency. Last season they brought in aging inside linebacker Zach Thomas, but he obviously didn't have the same leadership platform that he had with the Dolphins. Lewis would be much more vocal, but right now he's simply using the Cowboys to drive up his price. He wants no part of a locker room that has been splintered by Terrell Owens and the great enabler, Jerry Jones. He'll be right back in Baltimore when all is said and done. He knows the power of leverage and that's the only reason he's mentioning other teams right now. The Cowboys have a moderate level of interest in Lewis, but it's nothing that will cause them to break the bank.

Thursday Beastlines: Cowboys and Eagles

January, 22, 2009
1/22/09
12:02
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Cowboys

  • Tony Romo talked to Todd Archer about the 2008 season last night. Romo said his controversial comments after the Philadelphia game were to "ease the pain of the moment." We'll have much more on the interview as the day unfolds.
  • Drew Rosenhaus is saying T.O.'s status with the Dallas Cowboys is a "non-story." Sorry, Drew. We'll be the judge of that.

Eagles

Cowboys looking for the exits

December, 29, 2008
12/29/08
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

PHILADELPHIA -- As he walked off the field Sunday, Cowboys defensive tackle Tank Johnson crowed about being a free agent. Never mind that Jerry Jones was the one owner willing to take a chance on the trouble-maker who wore out his welcome in Chicago.

Inside linebacker Zach Thomas was far more gracious with his potential exit. He doesn't see himself re-signing with the Cowboys because he hasn't been at his natural middle linebacker spot.

"It's hard to do something for 12 years, play a position and then change and try to make it work," he said."I'm a little outside my comfort zone switching positions. But when you've got a guy like Bradie James at Mike who's All Pro and had a great year...I just feel like I gotta be fair to myself. I don't regret any of it."

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