NFL Nation: Derrick Thomas

Final Word: NFC West

November, 23, 2012
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

Fateful QB decision: If carried out as expected, the San Francisco 49ers' move to replace Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick will be the most scrutinized decision in the NFL this week and perhaps all season.

Smith has completed 25 of his past 27 passes. The 49ers have posted a 19-5-1 record the past two seasons with Smith in the lineup. Smith has 38 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in his past 30 starts dating to late in the 2010 season. His Total QBR score has risen from a sub-average 45.8 last season to 69.8 this season. The latter figure ranked ninth in the NFL through Week 11 and would represent Pro Bowl-caliber play if sustained over a full season.

What's not to like? Smith ranks only 25th in third-down QBR at 32.0. That is up from 22.0 last season, but it's still not good enough.

Smith has done a disproportionate amount of damage on early downs, when opponents must account for the 49ers' formidable ground game. His QBR score on first and second downs has jumped from 55.9 last season to 80.8 this season. Might the lagging third-down production point to limitations the 49ers think Kaepernick can transcend?

Kaepernick hasn't played enough to draw meaning from his third-down performance. So far, though, so good. The second-year pro has completed 7 of 12 passes for 123 yards on third down. He has one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. His third-down QBR score (65.6) would mark a significant improvement if maintained over time.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith, John Skelton
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsAldon Smith (99) is poised to become the NFL's all-time leader in sacks over a player's first two seasons.
Chasing down history: 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs two sacks to pass Derrick Thomas and tie Reggie White for the most sacks in a player's first two seasons since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. White had 31 in 1985-86. Thomas had 30 in 1989-90. Smith has 15 this season after collecting 14 as a rookie. Denver's Von Miller ranks sixth on the list with 24.5 in his first two seasons heading into Week 12.

Fresh-faced QBs: Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Arizona's Ryan Lindley had not started an NFL game before this season. All three are expected to start in Week 12. That makes St. Louis' Sam Bradford, with 36 career starts, the most seasoned starting quarterback in the division this week. The NFC West is bucking a broader NFL trend, however. Teams will have used no more than 42 starting quarterbacks through Week 12, the fewest to this point in any of the past 20 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Hitting the road: Wilson has gone 5-0 at home with 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 67.7 QBR score in those games. He heads to Miami in Week 12 having posted a 1-4 record on the road with four touchdowns, eight picks and a 47.3 QBR score. It's looking up for Wilson on the road, however. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 93.7 QBR score in his most recent road game, at Detroit. He's got a 70.7 QBR score for his past three road games, up from 23.6 for his first two. My feel is that Wilson has improved overall in recent weeks and that should translate to the road as long as his overall trajectory remains upward.

Welcoming back Wells: Running back Beanie Wells' return from a toe injury comes after the Cardinals pumped up their yards-per-carry average from a league-worst 3.5 through Week 8 to an 11th-ranked 4.3 since Week 9, a span of two games for Arizona. Wells faces a St. Louis run defense that has improved since he gashed it for 228 yards in Week 12 last season. The Rams are allowing 4.1 yards per carry, down from 4.8 last season. No Rams team has allowed fewer yards per carry over a season since 2002. On a side note, the Cardinals need no worse than a tie to avoid becoming the first NFL team to lose seven consecutive games after a 4-0 start.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
Andy from Des Moines, Iowa asks whether Pro Football Hall of Famers were disproportionately early draft choices.

Mike Sando: Yes, that is definitely the case. The Hall of Fame lists them by round. I also track this information. By my count, 143 of 188 drafted Hall of Famers were chosen in the first three rounds. That is 76.1 percent. That includes 94 first-round selections, 29 second-rounders and 20 third-rounders.

No players drafted after 1995 have been enshrined to this point.

Curtis Martin, named as part of the 2012 class, was a third-round choice in 1995. The previous six drafts have produced eight Hall of Famers, and all eight were first-round choices: Marshall Faulk, Willie Roaf, Cortez Kennedy, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.

Later-round picks fared better long ago, when the draft had many more rounds. The NFL went from 17 to 12 rounds in 1977, then to eight in 1993 and seven the following year.

The chart below shows round-by-round distribution for drafted Hall of Famers since the 1983 class produced six Hall of Famers in the first round, the most for any first round.

Players drafted in first rounds tend to have more talent. They also tend to get every opportunity to succeed. The combination of those factors explains why more of them have found their way to Canton, in my view.

We spent plenty of time in recent days discussing the tough road for wide receivers making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the process, we ignored where the selection committee has turned its attention: pass-rushers.

Not a single receiver made the last cut to five modern-day finalists in Saturday's balloting in Indianapolis. But former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman became the third consecutive NFC North pass-rusher to earn enshrinement, following Richard Dent in 2011 and John Randle in 2010. Former Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter once again failed to make the cut, a victim of the perceived value between pass-rushers and wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeVikings defensive end Chris Doleman
AP Photo/NFL PhotosNot only was Chris Doleman a sack specialist, but the former Vikings star is also among the NFL career leaders in fumble recoveries.
At least one pass-rusher has won election in each of the past five years. Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas were part of the 2009 class, and Fred Dean was in the class of 2008.

Doleman's 150.5 career sacks rank third in NFL history, behind Smith (200), Reggie White (198) and Kevin Greene (160). Smith and White are both in Canton, and as of Saturday, eight of the 10 players with the highest career sack totals have or will be enshrined. Greene and the recently retired Jason Taylor (139.5) are the only players who have been left out.

(More on Greene, who didn't even make the cut from 15 finalists to 10, in the coming days.)

I don't want to take anything away from Doleman, who was a pass-rushing force for an extended period in the NFL. His two best seasons -- 21 sacks in 1989 and 15 sacks in 1998 -- came nine years apart. Doleman was part of four teams that finished the season with the NFL's top-ranked defense, recovered the seventh-most fumbles (24) in league history and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.

But with the exception of Greene, it's clear that sack totals are among the most reliable tickets to the Hall of Fame. Minutes after Doleman's election was announced, longtime Twin Cities sports analyst Patrick Reusse (also a colleague of mine at ESPN 1500) tweeted: "Apparently, it's all about sacks, since in his absolute prime, Doleman was 2nd best D-lineman on his team, behind Keith Millard."

To me, the definition of a Hall of Fame player is that he was one of the best of his era. Doleman was named to the NFL's 1990's All-Decade team, along with three other defensive ends. Was he one of the best players of that generation? He was if you accept that pass rushing is as important as the voting committee considers it.

But enough of that. I'm not going to diminish Doleman's big day by questioning his credentials. There is little doubt he was a great player for a long time in this league.

Yes, the beauty of the annual Hall of Fame announcement is that it produces as much debate afterwards as it did beforehand. Chris Doleman is a Hall of Fame player because the voting committee places premium value on his particular skill set. (Again, Greene appears to be the lone exception to that rule.)

Cris Carter isn't in the Hall of Fame because the voting committee doesn't value his position and corresponding statistics nearly as much. There are still only 21 receivers in Canton, the lowest total of any position other than tight end and kicking specialist. That's the deal -- no more and no less.
DENVER -- It was weeks into John Elway’s new role in his old home and he was explaining how he could best help the Denver Broncos take advantage of having the No. 2 overall draft pick.

While taking a break from scouting players at the NFL Combine, the legendary quarterback stood in an Indianapolis hotel and said he thought he knew how to evaluate pass-rushers as well as any position on the field (quarterback and receiver included) because those were the players he spent all his time studying to beat.

There was no pass-rusher –- or any player regardless of position -– available in the 2011 draft who would have worried Elway the quarterback more than Von Miller. That's why Elway, the lead decision maker of the Broncos, jumped at the opportunity to make Miller the centerpiece of his organization -- a team that no longer resembles the perennial contender of Elway’s heyday.

As the Elway-John Fox era officially begins when the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders in the second half of an ESPN “Monday Night Football” doubleheader (kickoff is set for 10:15 ET), all eyes will be on No. 58. Miller picked the number of his hero, the late Derrick Thomas. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame linebacker sacked Elway 26 times, the most of any player in Elway's career. This time, though, Elway won’t mind seeing that No. 58 drop the quarterback.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty ImagesVon Miller was drafted to revitalize a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2010.
Elway -- who was hired by owner and close friend Pat Bowlen to bring stability to an organization that fired two head coaches in less than a two-year span -- is trying to fix the defense that was ranked last in the NFL last season and had a league-low 23 sacks in 2010. A team that is usually focused on offense hired Fox, one of the more respected defensive specialists in the NFL.

The Broncos zeroed in on several defensive players, including Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Auburn’s Nick Fairley. But in the team’s meetings, everything pointed to drafting Miller.

Denver concluded that Miller was the most sure of all the prospects. He starred on the field at Texas A&M. He had strong character. He stole the show during the Senior Bowl week. He blew away scouts at the combine with his size, speed and power. Elway told people his explosiveness was off the charts. And the Broncos marveled that someone could run like a cornerback while being built like a prototypical pass-rusher.

On the eve of the regular season, the Broncos are not regretting the pick. Big things are expected from Miller, including by ESPN’s panel of experts.

During training camp, I asked Fox about Miller’s development. He gave the typical coach party line that Miller was a work in progress. Then, I asked whether Miler’s ability was as advertised. Fox didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah, he’s going to be a player,” Fox said.

Miller dominated the preseason. He had three sacks in limited action. He knocked down Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson four times in the third preseason game. Denver believes the pass-rush combination of defensive end Elvis Dumervil (who led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 before missing all of last season with a pectoral injury) and Miller will immediately improve the defense.

If the Broncos have any chance of beating the Raiders -- who won 59-14 in Denver last season -- Dumervil and Miller have to knock Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell onto the Mile High ground a few times.

Miller knows what is expected of him in Denver. He is not shying away from the task of changing the defensive atmosphere in Denver.

“I’ve been ready since a few weeks ago,” Miller said earlier this week. “Every week is game week for me, but these are the ones that are really going to count and you can definitely feel it in practice. It’s a little more tense.”

Miller, known for being a team-oriented player in College Station, has impressed the Broncos by acting like an undrafted free agent. He studies the playbook diligently and doesn’t act like he's already arrived. He is bent on fixing mistakes.

“Every week I have to take a step to get better and that is what I have been trying to do,” Miller said. “I feel as if there is still a lot of room to improve. I need to improve my practice habits. I could run a little bit better in the games and get my assignments down. I can get my assignments down; you can’t have a guy out there who is inconsistent. That is one of the things I’m working on now, getting my plays down and being there for my team in crunch time.”

Crunch time begins Monday night, as does a new defensive era in Denver.

“I like him a lot,” future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey said. “You can see every day why he was the No. 2 pick. I’m glad he’s the guy we took.”
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

There is no one in professional sports quite like Al Davis.

Say what you like about the mercurial, jump-suit clad czar of the Oakland Raiders, but the man is one of a kind.

He is the Oakland Raiders. AFC West history lessons must start with Davis.

[+] EnlargeAl Davis
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe Raiders have been all Al Davis since 1963, winning three Super Bowls and one AFL championship.
Just set the tone, baby.

Although the Raiders are one of the NFL’s most tradition-rich franchises, there was really no other choice as Oakland’s representative for the pivotal moment in team history. It all started in 1963 when a young, brash offensive mind from Brooklyn left his post as an assistant coach with the rival San Diego Chargers to become the head coach/general manager of the Raiders.

Readers agreed as Davis was a runaway winner, beating the Raiders’ first Super Bowl win in Super Bowl XI, the Raiders’ return to Oakland in 1995 and the trade of coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay in 2002.

It has to be Davis. After all, if it weren’t for Davis’ arrival in Oakland, none of the other finalists might have occurred. Nothing has happened involving the Raiders since 1963 that hasn’t had Davis’ fingerprints all over it. Nothing.

Readers noticed.

Rob31340 said: While it does not excuse recent failures, Al Davis is probably one of the three most important figures in NFL History. Even though he has been passed by in matters of business and football in general, no current owner or executive can lay claim to accomplishing more for the league and Oakland Raiders than Al Davis.

Added MicRaider: “Al Davis changed the whole perspective of the organization, and the AFL. This man is responsible for changing football for generations to come in many different aspects of the game, not just on the field, but the business, too .. (nothing else) come close to defining us as the Raider Nation than BIG AL.”

It’s been 48 years and it’s been good and bad, but there’s no denying that Al Davis -- less than two months shy of his 82nd birthday -- has and does define the AFC West.

Broncos: This one’s for John

While Davis has been the face of the Raiders for 48 years as an off-field leader, there hasn’t been a player in AFC West history who had more of an impact than John Elway.

One of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, Elway was the Denver Broncos from 1983 to 1998. He led Denver to five Super Bowls and won the final two in his final two NFL seasons.

Elway’s legacy has lasted beyond his retirement. There are still likely to be more orange No. 7 jerseys in the Mile High stands than any other.

Denver's John Elway
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty ImagesJohn Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning two.
This January, as he watched his once-proud franchise slip into irrelevancy, Denver owner Pat Bowlen gave Elway the ball again at the age of 50, asking for another patented Elway comeback, making him the vice president of football operations in Denver.

It all started in 1983 when Denver traded a package to the Baltimore Colts to get Elway after he refused to play for the Colts. This one was a no-doubter. The voting was even more lopsided than Davis’ win in Oakland. The other choices in Denver were Mike Shanahan’s arrival in 1995 as head coach, the drafting of running back Terrell Davis in 1995 and the team’s first Super Bowl win in Super Bowl XXXII.

The readers made it clear what was the flash point in Denver. It was the arrival of the Duke.

Said Arhoades28: “It has to be Elway … Elway and his 5 SBs define this franchise, for me at least.”

Added Jefffree57: “It all started with Elway. He might not have won it until Shanny and TD came. But he sure did keep that team competitive for a long while and a great leader for those SB wins.”

Chiefs: We are champions

When we first started this project, I was leaning toward making the arrival of the great Derrick Thomas in the 1989 draft as the team’s Flash Point.

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Hank Stram
AP PhotoKansas City coach Hank Stram and the Chiefs celebrated the franchise's first and only Super Bowl victory in 1970.
He was one of the most ferocious defensive players in the NFL in recent memory and was a major reason why the Chiefs were a consistent contender for much of the 1990s. No player hassled Elway more than Thomas ever did.

He was the face of Kansas City until his tragic death in 2000 from complications following an auto accident.

However, the more I considered it, the more I thought the Chiefs’ lone Super Bowl title in Super Bowl IV is the Flash Point in team history. It was a solid winner over Thomas’ arrival, the arrival of general manager Scott Pioli in 2009 and the team’s move from Dallas in 1963.

I get it. Nothing changes a franchise’s landscape like a championship. I am a lifelong fan of the San Francisco Giants, who won their first World Series last fall. From now on, whatever happens, that first championship will always be the defining moment of the franchise in my mind.

The same thing happened in Kansas City in January, 1970. The Chiefs were a big deal back in the day and this was the team that will forever be remembered of all Lamar Hunt’s great teams.

Here’s some of what Chiefs’ fans have to say about that team:

Said Jayrodtremonki: “This one is the hardest one for me to call. Winning the Super Bowl and drafting DT are both huge moments for the franchise. Growing up with Thomas as my favorite player it's obviously a little closer to my heart, but it's still hard to put him over the crowning achievement of guys like Dawson, Lanier, Bell, Taylor, E Thomas and Hank Stram.”

Added Freyasfav: “Hank Stram’s teams were fantastic, show the old NFL what they were missing – pizzazz.”

Chargers: The Decade of LT

The San Diego Chargers are the only team in the AFC West never to have won a Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeLaDainian Tomlinson
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesTeammates raised up LaDainian Tomlinson after he broke the NFL single-season TD record in 2006.
However, they are rich in history. There have been some great players in this organization.

Perhaps no one has defined the team more than running back LaDainian Tomlinson. It’s funny, because this is a quarterback's league and the Chargers have been blessed with great quarterback play. Dan Fouts was a Hall of Famer and Philip Rivers has become an elite quarterback.

Still, LT owned the Chargers.

That’s why the Chargers' taking him with the No. 5 pick of the 2001 NFL draft was the winning Flash Point in San Diego history.

It beat out Fouts’ arrival in 1973, the 2004 draft-day trade with the New York Giants involving Rivers and Eli Manning and the Chargers’ lone Super Bowl appearance, a lopsided loss to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX.

With a special running style and an off-field personality to match, Tomlinson became a superstar in San Diego. He turned the Chargers from a bottom feeder to a perennial division champion until his controversial departure in 2010, which left him in tears.

There are no hard feeling. Tomlinson’s legacy lives in San Diego. Jordang702 put it simply: “LT was huge for them!!!!!!”
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Chiefs -– for better or worse? Give us your take and we’ll give you our definitive moment May 24.

Let’s start with the franchise’s move from Dallas to Kansas City in 1963. This is a historic franchise and it all really began with this move.

The shining moment in Chiefs history is its Super Bowl IV victory over Minnesota. There were some great players on that team and they are still the toast of Kansas City.

One of the most beloved Chiefs of all time was linebacker Derrick Thomas. A star on the field and an active member of the community, the Hall of Famer is still a major part of the fabric of the city 11 years after his death.

And let’s give the upstart current Chiefs some love. The franchise began to turn around when Scott Pioli was hired as general manager in 2009. The Chiefs won 10 games and the AFC West title last season and, once again, are relevant. The resurgence started with his hiring.

This is a history-filled franchise, and if you have a better option, hit Other in the SportsNation poll and let us know in the comment section.
John Elway felt it was fitting that Von Miller chose to wear No. 58 as he begins his career with the Denver Broncos.

The Texas A&M outside linebacker -- who Denver selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft -- modeled his game after the Kansas City Chiefs’ legendary linebacker Derrick Thomas. Thomas wore No. 58 in Kansas City.

“I thought it was great that Von is wearing No. 58,” said Elway. “I know he really likes Derrick.”

Still, the idea of the outside linebacker walking around the building wearing No. 58 gave Elway unwanted flashbacks.

“I told him not to walk behind me,” Elway joked.

No defender harassed Elway in his career more than Thomas. He sacked Elway 26 times, more than any quarterback in his career.

Elway said he understands the Thomas comparison, but he said Miller has a lot to do to live up to Thomas.

“It’d be great if he did,” Miller.

Earlier Saturday, Elway was asked why the team took Miller at No. 2. Elway’s answer was simple.

“He’s a type of guy that comes around every 10 years,” Elway said.
Von Miller Brett Davis/US PresswireVon Miller had 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season as an All-American at Texas A&M.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway gave a hint to his first draft pick as the front-office savior during the NFL combine in February.

Elway said he thought the draft prospects he’d have the best handle on would be pass-rushers and cornerbacks, more than quarterbacks and receivers, as we’d naturally think. The pass-rushers and cornerbacks were the players Elway studied the most during his 16-year NFL career.

During his career, the player Elway spent the most time trying to figure out was Kansas City Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas. No player gave Elway more trouble than Thomas. He sacked Elway 26 times, more than any other quarterback in his career.

Perhaps that’s why Elway was drawn to Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, whom Denver took with the No. 2 pick of the NFL draft Thursday. Miller has drawn strong comparisons to Thomas. Recently, Miller said he has modeled his life on and off the field after Thomas, who died in 2000 from complications sustained in an auto accident.

"I watched his film and studied his film,” Miller said. “I watched all his interviews, and the point of view he had on the game is similar to the way I feel … I could never, ever play like Derrick Thomas. But he played with a fanatical effort, a relentless effort, and that's what I try to do -- to play with that same attitude."

Thomas finished with 126.5 career sacks. Elway and the rest of the Denver brass, including new coach John Fox, who is a defensive specialist, are banking on Miller becoming that type of impact player in Denver.

It was clear the Broncos were going to go defense with the choice. The Broncos were last in the NFL in total defense, points allowed and explosive plays allowed in 2010. But the betting money wasn’t on Miller until the 36 hours prior to the draft. The focus was on Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who was considered perhaps the safest defensive pick available and he fit a big need for Denver.

But Miller will also fill a need for Denver, which is particularly weak on the front seven.

Even though Miller’s name didn’t get connected to Denver until this week, the team has long been on him. Denver’s brass had a private workout with him after his pro day and he visited Denver prior to the draft.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Thomas and John Elway
AP Photo,fileFormer Chief Derrick Thomas gave John Elway fits during his career. Elway hopes Von Miller can do the same to AFC West quarterbacks.
“He’s a big playmaker and a leader who is explosive,” Fox said shortly after the selection. “It’s crucial in this league to be able to rush the passer and Von adds that dimension to our defense. He’s also able to drop back into pass coverage. There’s no doubt that his versatility is going to make us a better football team.”

Fox is hoping he has the same luck with his first pick in Denver as he did in Carolina nine years ago. Fox took star pass-rusher Julius Peppers at No. 2 in 2002.

Elway told ESPN’s Ed Werder Wednesday that Miller was the most dynamic pass-rusher in a class full of outstanding pass-rushers. Denver was also mesmerized by Miller’s athleticism. Denver general manager Brian Xanders told Werder that the team did a computer analysis of Miller’s athletic measurables compared to the 64 current starting wide receivers and cornerbacks, and Miller rated out above average athletically.

He is 6-foot-2, 248 pounds and was one of the fastest defenders at the combine. Miller dominated the Senior Bowl in January. But this is no Vernon Gholston. Miller looks good on the field as well. Despite being hampered by an ankle injury for much of last season, Miller had 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season as he earned consensus All-America honors.

Denver envisions Miller playing on all four downs, including on special teams. Expect him to play strongside linebacker on first and second downs and play on the edge along with 2009 NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil -- who missed all of 2010 with a pectoral injury -- on third down. That’s some pass-rushing juice.

Miller downplayed the fact that he is considered a better fit for 3-4 defenses. Fox is moving Denver from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. The Broncos agree that Miller is versatile enough to excel as a 4-3 strongside linebacker.

“It comes down to shedding blocks and making tackles,” Miller said. “I’m anxious to prove myself. I can show you better than I can tell you.”

If he looks like the great Derrick Thomas doing it, Elway will finally smile at that vision.

Jon Gruden breaks down draft

April, 19, 2011
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden conducted a lively conference call with media members Tuesday to address the upcoming draft.

Several of the topics Gruden broached involve the AFC West and this draft. Among the topics he addressed were the quarterbacks in the draft (each team in the division could take a quarterback), the top pass-rushers available and the defensive tackles Denver may choose from at No. 2.

Let’s take a look:

Was there one guy you sat down going into the QB camp that you came away really impressed by or you may not have thought as much of until you sat down with him and broke down the film with him?

GRUDEN: You know these five guys that we had in, three of them are juniors: (Cam) Newton, (Blaine) Gabbert and (Ryan) Mallett. They're all underclassmen. Cam Newton with 14 career starts, the thing that impressed me, not only his physical attributes and his size, but his charisma. I think his eagerness to learn and prove that he can adapt to a pro style on offense. He showed very good retention to me in the meetings and the material that we covered. I just like the look in his eyes, the eagerness and feeling that he has a lot to prove to everybody including himself. I think Newton impressed me the most in that regard.

When you look at Andy Dalton, you see him evolving into what long term? Is he best for a West Coast offense, or could you see him becoming a starter in any style of offense?

GRUDEN: I think Andy Dalton can play in any offense. I think when you become a pro quarterback and play in the National Football League, as the hash marks change, the field becomes more available. When you're on a college hash mark and you're throwing the ball to the wide side of the field, that's almost an impossible task for anyone. So I think putting the ball in the middle of the field favors Andy Dalton. I've seen him be an accurate passer down the field. I've seen him manage a high volume offense with great success at TCU. He's got four years of production. And if you look at Texas Christian football, who would have thought they'd be 13-0 and Rose Bowl champions? I really think Andy Dalton can fit any offense. But the more you put on him above the neck mentally to make decisions and play the game with his heady nature, I think the better Andy Dalton's going to be. He's an outstanding, well versed quarterback that I think will fit a lot of schemes.

Wanted your take on Colin Kaepernick of Nevada, and whether it's harder to project him because he's playing in the pistol and against WAC competition?

GRUDEN: Well, the pistol does make it tough, but you can't deny production. No one's thrown for 10,000 yards and rushed for over 4,000. I wanted to see Randall Cunningham when I picked up the film. This guy's got a fastball and he can really throw it. He's a Chicago Cub draft selection. I mean, he threw the football 60 miles an hour in Indianapolis. But the pistol offense is hard to really define what kind of pure passer he is. I watched him in the Senior Bowl, the workouts. I think he showed some improvement going underneath the center. But I do think you're getting a double threat. You're getting a guy that has a contagious, charismatic personality -- a guy that really wants to compete. You're getting an exciting prospect. Might take him some time, but you're getting a guy that can run and pass, just needs some development and needs to make the transition to the next level.

[+] EnlargeJon Gruden
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesESPN analyst and former Bucs coach Jon Gruden was impressed with Cam Newton's retention skills.
Talk a little bit about premium placed on pass-rushers and cornerbacks. Every year it seems more and more, and how does that match up with the strength of this particular draft?

GRUDEN: There is a premium on pass rush. You don't want to have to blitz five, six, seven guys to get there. You want to be able to get there with four, if you can for sure, and use seven men in coverage. Play two deep, five under, three deep, four under. Mix your coverages up. Don't telegraph to these quarterbacks what you're playing, but you have to put pressure on these quarterbacks. Defensive ends are a premium in this draft. I think this is an outstanding class of defensive end. There are some good defensive tackles. But Bowers, providing his knee is healthy, and Robert Quinn at North Carolina, Aldon Smith is special at Missouri. I think J.J. Watt is a physical guy coming off the edge, like Ryan Kerrigan at Purdue. Adrian Clayborn has some excellent tape. There are a number of good pass rushers in this draft. I think if you look at Nick Fairley, you're seeing one of the best inside pass rushers from a tackle position. So this is the strength of the draft. You throw in guys like Von Miller, who is a Derrick Thomas size speed guy coming off the corner. There are some guys that can provide pressure quickly, and I think that is the strength of this draft.

Cam Newton is visiting the Broncos today, and of course they have Tim Tebow. You had them both in your camp in the last two years. Is it true that Cam is superior with the throwing mechanics and a better athlete because he's faster, but Tebow is far better in the intangibles? That's what I'm getting as everyone talks about these guys.

GRUDEN: Well, Tebow's body of work was much more extensive than Cam's. Cam Newton has come from nowhere. I was watching film with Cam Newton. I showed Cam Newton throwing a pass for the Florida Gators against the Hawaii Rainbows two years ago. Cam Newton has exploded on to the scene out of nowhere and threw in 14 games. Whereas, Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner [as a sophomore], came back for his senior year, and part of two national championship teams. They're different guys. One's a left handed guy with different mechanics. And Newton is a work in progress in his own right. But they are similar from the standpoint that they both physically dominated college football. I think there are some interesting intangibles with Newton also. You're getting a guy that you can build a very unique offense around. I hear the elevator music. I don't know what is reality. I just got to spend a day and a half with Cam. I was impressed with him. I know people that have had him in for individual meetings. They like his retention. They like his attention to detail. There are some similarities in that they're physical status type guys. I'd like to have either one of them.

On D tackle, Marcell Dareus seems to be rated higher than Nick Fairley coming into this draft, and Fairley's getting this criticism on work ethic and technique. But production wise, Fairley about doubled Dareus this past year. Your thoughts on those two guys?

GRUDEN: Well, Dareus, if you watch Darius play two years ago, his film is even better than it was this year. He got hurt in the Arkansas game. That ankle lingered throughout the season. He missed the opening game because of a rules violation. But I think Dareus is a different player than Fairley. Dareus is a three position player in a 3-4 front. He can play nose, either defensive end. He is legitimate, sheer power. This is a power player. He is rare. You've seen the physical nature this guy's put together with a rare combination of explosive physical play, and a guy that's well versed under Nick Saban. Fairley is an under tackle. He's the guy that reminds me of Kevin Williams of the Minnesota Vikings. He's a one gap penetrator and a premier pass rusher in his draft, if you ask me. A lot of the sacks and hits he put on quarterback were not by accident. He, again, has one year of production, really. I think he's on the rise. I think he's getting better. I think Coach Rocker at Auburn did an excellent job with Fairley developing him.

Christian Ponder at Florida State, have you gotten to spend much time with him? Have you broken down his film? What do you think of him as a quarterback and as a person?

GRUDEN: I have not had a chance to individually work Christian Ponder out. I have had a chance to study his tape. Here's a guy that is a three-year starter. He's won 22 games at Florida State, Senior Bowl MVP. He's already graduated. There are a lot of upsides here. He's had some injuries, which are the big concern. He's a great leader. Two-time team captain of the Seminoles. Two years ago he threw for almost 70 percent. I think the injuries got to him a little bit this year. But you see a couple tremendous throws in the Florida game. One, a red zone post where you see the anticipation, the accuracy, the toughness in the pocket. There are a lot of guys I know that that like this guy because he's got the aptitude to learn. He's got the leadership traits that you want, and he's got a lot of playing experience. And Jimbo Fisher does some good things on offense. But I think he's an accurate, intermediate passer. People want to see him push the ball maybe a little more down the field. Like to see a little more arm strength. But I think those things will develop and come to Ponder when he gets healthy and continues to physically get stronger. He's a very good collegian. He's got good enough size, good enough mobility, and he's won a lot of games and shown tremendous toughness for the Seminoles.
You are off the hook, Ryan Leaf.

Now that he has been cut by Oakland, quarterback JaMarcus Russell has to be considered the biggest all-time NFL draft bust. Here is my list of the five greatest busts in draft history:

1. JaMarcus Russell: He is 7-18 as an NFL starter, which is the worst record by a quarterback who was a No. 1 overall pick. He is the fastest quarterback who was a top pick to be released by his drafting team. Russell, 24, lasted three years in Oakland. He cost the Raiders $39 million.

2. Ryan Leaf: Leaf was the No. 2 pick in 1998, being taken one pick after the great Peyton Manning. Leaf was a disaster on and off the field in San Diego. He lasted three injury- and controversy-plagued seasons with the Chargers. He won four games with the Chargers. Still, Russell is a bigger bust because he was a top pick and he was much more expensive than Leaf.

3. Charles Rogers: The Lions took Rogers with the No. 2 pick, one slot ahead of when Houston took Andre Johnson. Rogers lasted three seasons in Detroit. His stay there was marred by injuries and off-field issues.

4. Tim Couch: Cleveland picked him with the first pick in 1999 over No. 2 pick Donovan McNabb. Couch lasted four horrible seasons in Cleveland.

5. Tony Mandarich: The Packers took the tackle No. 2 in 1989, ahead of the likes of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders. He lasted three years in Green Bay and never made an impact.

Discussing Hall of Fame credentials

February, 1, 2010
MIAMI -- Hall of Fame voters will consider nine 2010 finalists with ties to current NFC West teams.

I'll be presenting the case for Cortez Kennedy during the proceedings Saturday as the geographic representative for the Seattle market.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesFormer Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Two things about Kennedy have jumped out during my research:

  • Kennedy was a great every-down player. Kennedy played at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps from 1991 to 1996, including 97.22 percent in 1994. He was a force against run and pass alike, not just a situational player or one-dimensional player.
  • Kennedy and Hall of Famer Randy White are the only defensive tackles in NFL history with at least 150 starts, 50 sacks and eight Pro Bowls.

I'd like to use this forum to solicit your thoughts on Kennedy and the eight other finalists with ties to current NFC West teams. I'll single out a note or two on each player here to help get the conversation going (while fully recognizing that some of these players enjoyed most of their success for teams outside the division):
  • Jerry Rice, 49ers WR. Arguably the greatest player in NFL history.
  • Roger Craig, 49ers RB. One of three players in NFL history with 8,000 yards rushing, 4,900 yards receiving, 70 total touchdowns and four Pro Bowls. Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk are the others.
  • Richard Dent, 49ers DL. One of three players in NFL history with at least 135 sacks and 35 forced fumbles. Bruce Smith and Chris Doleman are the others.
  • Charles Haley, 49ers OLB/DE. One of 10 players in NFL history with 100 sacks, 25 forced fumbles and five Pro Bowls.
  • Rickey Jackson, 49ers linebacker. One of five players in NFL history with at least 125 sacks and 40 forced fumbles. Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, Doleman and Jason Taylor are the others.
  • John Randle, Seahawks DT. One of five players in NFL history with185 starts, 135 sacks and seven Pro Bowls.
  • Don Coryell, Cardinals coach. Helped change the way teams played offense in the passing game, which helped revolutionize how defenses responded.
  • Emmitt Smith, Cardinals RB. All-time NFL rushing leader.
  • Russ Grimm, Redskins guard (and current Cardinals assistant coach). Arguably the best player on the most famous offensive line in NFL history.

Cassel tanks in front of mentor

December, 6, 2009
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Matt Cassel struggled against his former mentor, Josh McDaniels, completing just 10 of 29 passes for 84 yards before being benched. He also threw two interceptions
KANSAS CITY --- This couldn’t have been the Matt Cassel whom Josh McDaniels tried to trade for, completely changing the complexion of his new organization in the process.

In their first meeting as opponents, Cassel looked far from the breakout player he was in New England last year under McDaniels’ guidance. Cassel -- whose career will always be linked to McDaniels -- had perhaps his worst day as a professional Sunday, and spent more than a quarter of Denver’s 44-13 thrashing on the bench.

After the game, Chiefs coach Todd Haley said Cassel is still his quarterback. Haley answered with a simple “yes” when asked if Cassel will be behind center against Buffalo next week.

Still, Cassel’s departure had the feel of a benching. At the very least, his performance had something to do with his early departure and the insertion of Brodie Croyle at quarterback.

Cassel, who was awful in the third quarter as Denver outscored Kansas City 20-0, completed 10 of 29 passes for 84 yards. He threw both of his interceptions in the third quarter. Cassel had been improving steadily this season, but he had little to offer Sunday.

Still, it was startling to see Croyle replace Cassel in the third quarter, especially under the circumstances. Croyle -- the team’s former starter, who completed only 6 of 14 passes for 50 yards -- entered after the Chiefs recovered a fumble at the Broncos’ 3 late in the third quarter and Denver leading 34-6. You would think the starting quarterback would be kept in at the goal line.

“I always want to be out there with my team,” Cassel said. “I always want to fight. Part of the situation of us being where we were was my fault … Coach felt like it was time to put Brodie in the game and the game was out of hand at that point. And that was part of his decision-making.”

Haley made it clear that he still believes in Cassel.

“I’m very confident in Matt,” Haley said. “The game didn’t go the way he or we wanted it to go.”

While Cassel’s departure from the game wasn’t a classic benching, and he is still the team’s quarterback of the future, it was a remarkable downward turn for the player McDaniels wanted to be his quarterback in Denver.

Perhaps it served as a reminder to Denver that the dramatic turn of events in the offseason worked out best for them.

In one of his first moves as Denver’s coach, McDaniels looked into trading for Cassel, who shined for New England as Tom Brady’s injury replacement last season. Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, coming off a Pro Bowl year at the age of 25, was going to be part of a potential three-way deal. The trade never happened and Kansas City sneaked in and got Cassel instead.

But the damage was done in Denver. Cutler was eventually sent to Chicago in a deal in which the Bears tossed in quarterback Kyle Orton.

On Sunday, Orton continued his steady, game-managing ways for the Broncos, who improved to 8-4.

McDaniels threw praise at his beleaguered protégé Sunday. But it’s clear McDaniels is enjoying more success than Cassel after the botched trade that would have reunited them.

Other keys to the game:

Denver is back on track: The team of streaks continued its wild ride. Denver started the season with six straight wins before losing four straight and its hold on first place in the AFC West. Now, Denver has won two straight games and looks to be in good shape for the playoffs.

Denver trails San Diego (9-3) by one game in the division entering the final quarter of the season and would currently be the AFC's No. 5 seed.

If the Broncos win their final two home games (against Oakland and Kansas City) they will reach the 10-win mark, which should secure a playoff berth. The Broncos have a tough test at 12-0 Indianapolis next week.

Denver’s running game thrives: After struggling during its losing streak, the Denver running game was at its best Sunday.

Correll Buckhalter had 113 yards on 12 carries and rookie Knowshon Moreno had 86 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

Buckhalter set the pace with three runs totaling 56 yards on a touchdown drive during the second quarter that gave Denver a 14-3 lead and command of the game.

“Buck has done a great job all year,” Orton said. “He’s a guy that once he breaks through that line he’s really got a lot of home run potential.”

If Buckhalter and Moreno can sustain their 1-2 punch (as they did early in the season), Denver’s offense could be difficult to stop late in the season.

Thomas would have been proud: On the day that Kansas City’s late legendary pass-rusher Derrick Thomas had his No. 58 jersey retired, Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali had his best game as a pro. Hali had 10 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

“Tamba played his [rear] off,” Kansas City linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “It’s too bad we couldn’t take advantage of it.”

While Hali was the pass-rushing story of the day, Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil had a sack to raise his total to 15, which leads the NFL. Dumervil needs one sack to tie Denver’s single-season record and he is 7.5 sacks from tying the NFL record. He is on pace for 20 sacks.

Vrabel loses his cool: Vrabel reacted angrily after Denver scored its final touchdown to make it 41-13 with 12:05 to go. Moreno scored on an 18-yard run on fourth-and-1

He directed an obscene gesture toward Denver’s bench. Vrabel was with McDaniels in New England the past several seasons.

Vrabel attributed the gesture to frustration after another tough loss. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if he is fined by the NFL. Players have been fined for such gestures in the past.

Halftime notes from Kansas City

December, 6, 2009
KANSAS CITY --- The Broncos lead the Chiefs 14-6.

The Chiefs are retiring the No. 58 jersey of the late, great Derrick Thomas in a ceremony as I type. Thomas, a pass-rushing star, died in 2000 after complications from an auto accident.

Denver has two turnovers to Kansas City’s none, but still lead. Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil registered his 15th sack of the season. He is one sack off Denver’s team record and 7.5 off the NFL record for single-season sacks.

Denver running back Correll Buckhalter had 90 yards on eight carries in the first half. Backfield mate Knowshon Moreno added 41 yards on 11 carries.

The Chiefs are having success when they use the no-huddle offense. Denver’s defense seems confused by it.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 4, 2009
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel, Josh McDaniels
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonMatt Cassel and Josh McDaniels face each other for the first time since they left New England for new opportunities.
McDaniels and Cassel meet again: Broncos coach Josh McDaniels will be on the same field with Matt Cassel, but this time they're representing different teams. Cassel flourished under McDaniels last season in New England after Tom Brady went down for the season in Week 1. Cassel’s success helped solidify McDaniels’ status as a quality head-coaching candidate. When he became the head man, McDaniels looked into trading for Cassel before he was acquired by Kansas City. During those talks, Jay Cutler's name came up. Cutler caught wind and after a five-week drama, Cutler was shipped out. Cassel will always be connected to McDaniels’ legacy as a head coach.

Good day to remember Thomas: The Chiefs are retiring the No. 58 jersey of the late Derrick Thomas and honoring his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past summer. It’s very fitting that Thomas is being honored on a day Kansas City plays Denver. Thomas terrorized the Broncos. He was legendary quarterback John Elway’s greatest tormentor.

Gradkowski goes home: Bruce Gradkowski will start his third NFL game as a Raider in his hometown of Pittsburgh on Sunday. It will be Gradkowski’s third start in his hometown –- for his third team. His previous starts in Pittsburgh were for Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Gradkowski has given Oakland a spark with his energy. Expect him to be especially energetic as he tries to impress the home folks.

Chargers have to continue to dominate bottom-feeders: The Chargers have done exactly what they have needed to do this season: They have beaten the teams they are supposed to beat. San Diego is 5-0 against teams with losing records, 3-3 against teams with winning records. However, San Diego, which has won six straight games, has three straight wins against teams with winning marks. Sunday, the Chargers play at 1-10 Cleveland. The Chargers are on pace to win the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. They can’t stumble against the Browns. Recent history says they won’t.

Arrowhead Stadium has been a house of horrors for Denver in the stretch run: The Broncos need to win Sunday at Kansas City to keep up their playoff pace. However, it may not be easy if history is any indication. The Broncos are 1-16 in Kansas City in December. History may simply be history, but the Broncos will enter Arrowhead knowing it has been against them.
  US Presswire
  Bills legends Ralph Wilson Jr. and Bruce Smith were inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday night.

 Posted by's Tim Graham

CANTON, Ohio -- There was little doubt what anyone who stepped to the microphone needed to do to get a reaction from the crowd at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night in Fawcett Stadium.

Roger Staubach is no dummy. When he wanted to generate more applause for Bob Hayes' family, he announced they were from Buffalo. They aren't, but Staubach knew his audience.

Carl Peterson, the former Kansas City Chiefs executive who spoke for the late Derrick Thomas, made it a point to remind everyone Marty Schottenheimer played for the Buffalo Bills back in the day. Schottenheimer, already an emotional mess from listening to the memories of the great linebacker, trembled even more when the fans cheered.

2009 Hall of Fame Induction
Enshrinement Zoom Gallery
HOF Speech Transcripts
Ceremony has Bills flavor

And when Rich Eisen tried to tell some jokes about Rod Woodson and heard crickets, he should have just pumped his fist into the air and screamed "Buffalo!" Then he would have gotten a response. A big one.

Canton is the new South Buffalo this weekend.

Fans made the four-hour drive to watch two more of their Bills -- founder Ralph Wilson Jr. and defensive end Bruce Smith -- get inducted.

On Sunday night, the current Bills will play the Tennessee Titans in the annual Hall of Fame Game. It will be the Bills debut for future Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens.

Of the 12,695 fans in attendance Saturday night, a third reportedly hailed from the 716 area code.

  AP Photo/Tony Dejak
  Buffalo fans were in full force at Saturday's Hall of Fame inductions.
Not even a steady afternoon rain would deter them. Diehards wearing jerseys of almost every former Bills star you could imagine streamed into town to hear Wilson and Smith deliver speeches in their yellow jackets.

"Certainly feels like a home game," Smith said with a smile after he walked to the lectern. Calls of "Bruuuuuuuuuce" cascaded from the concrete bleachers.

Wilson and Smith bookended the evening. Wilson's presenter, ESPN's Chris Berman, played to the crowd by asking them to recite their favorite catchphrase with him: "No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills."

After Randall McDaniel, Hayes, Woodson and Thomas were honored, Smith went last.

His presenter, former Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, asked all the Bills who played on those Super Bowl teams to stand. Of course, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Marv Levy were on the stage. Mixed among the crowd were Darryl Talley, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker, Kent Hull, Will Wolford and others.

Bills fans, who haven't seen their team in the playoffs since the 1999 season, wistfully cheered each name as it was announced.

Smith's speech was wonderfully paced. He paid homage to his family and his mentors. He thanked the Washington Redskins and his agent. He mentioned each of his doctors by name.

Then, about 12 minutes into his speech, when he was supposed to be wrapping it up, he really got started, heaping praise on Buffalo.

"What a ride it was," Smith said before ticking off the accomplishments: four straight AFC titles, the K-Gun offense, the Comeback Game.

"And the record-breaking attendance set by the greatest fans in the NFL," Smith said.

Fawcett Stadium erupted.

"Thurman Thomas, you're undoubtedly the most complete running back of our era," Smith said while lauding his former mates. "My life would be a little less right if I didn't have you to laugh and joke with.

"P.S. I hid your helmet."

Fawcett Stadium erupted again. Without so many Bills fans in attendance, the crickets probably would have resumed chirping.