NFL Nation: Eddie Kennison
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez needed to be on a contending team and the Falcons needed another weapon for Matt Ryan. Atlanta is counting on the partnership to lead to a title.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
"I don't know why people always talk about 'it,'" Gonzalez said. "I think you can break it down and actually put your finger on it. First of all, he's got great talent and he's willing to work hard. Harder than anybody else. On our first day off of camp last week, he was in here working out at 3:30 on a Sunday. He's always watching film.
"I feel like I'm the same way. That's what makes great players. There's no substitute for it. That is the 'it' factor, you're willing to not just do what everybody else is doing. You're willing to go above and beyond.''
Ten minutes earlier and 30 yards away, Ryan sat in a chair and said basically the same thing about Gonzalez.
"There's no mystery why that kind of stuff happens,'' Ryan said. "It's not just a fluke or anything like that. He works so hard. He puts in the time, works hard in the weight room and on the practice field and takes care of his body. It's been impressive for me to see what it takes to be at that level at your position in this league and being one of the best players in the league.''
Yes, greatness realized and greatness on the verge are colliding in Atlanta this summer. It's no accident. Matchmakers Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff have put Ryan and Gonzalez together in an attempt to give each of them perhaps the only thing they were lacking. Quite simply, Ryan and Gonzalez needed one another.
Ryan needed a tight end to go with running back Michael Turner and receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as he attempts to follow up on an astounding rookie season. In the post-Michael Vick reconstruction of Atlanta, the Falcons give Ryan whatever he wants and needs.
That's why they went out and got the most productive tight end ever. Not thrilled with the prospect of another rebuilding year in Kansas City, Gonzalez said he was contemplating retirement. That all changed when Dimitroff and Smith started talking to the Chiefs about a trade. Atlanta sent its second-round pick in 2010 to Kansas City in exchange for Gonzalez because the future is now for the Falcons, who stunned the world by going 11-5 and making the playoffs last season.
Gonzalez needed a reason to keep playing and, most importantly, he needed a quarterback. You can see the chemistry coming together on the field. You can see it off the field, as the quarterback and tight end have been training-camp roommates and fast friends.
"We have the potential to be the best football team I've ever played on,'' Gonzalez said. "Offensively, we can be better than any team I've played on and that's saying a lot with the teams I played on with Dick Vermeil, Priest Holmes and Eddie Kennison. I loved (quarterback) Trent Green, but Matt's one of those Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman kind of guys. He's got the potential to be one of the best players ever.''
Now, Ryan is throwing to one of the best players ever.
1. Can Atlanta's defense, with five new starters, be as good as the offense?
Yes. Smith got his defense to overachieve in his first season as a head coach and that came without him truly having time to stock his roster with his type of personnel. The Falcons made the playoffs with linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson serving as stopgaps near the end of their careers.
Those three are gone and so are linebacker Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who was the only one of the five the Falcons had any interest in keeping. The Falcons drafted defensive tackle Peria Jerry and believe they had some replacements that fit their scheme in linebacker Stephen Nicholas, safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes.
They also signed free-agent linebacker Mike Peterson to take Brooking's place. Peterson, 33, doesn't make the defense any younger, but he spent the best years of his career in Jacksonville, where Smith was his defensive coordinator. Smith likes to talk about the "process'' and the defensive overhaul is the next step. The Falcons put last year's emphasis on building the offense. This year, they're trying to assemble a defense to match it.
|AP Photo/John Bazemore|
|The Falcons need Matt Ryan to continue to improve in his second year.|
2. Are the cornerbacks good enough to stop the top passing games?
A lot of fans seem concerned about a cornerback group that has Chris Houston and Grimes as the starters with rookie Chris Owens and second year pro Chevis Jackson as the top backups.
None of them fit the profile of a true shut-down corner, but Smith and Dimitroff seem to have a lot more faith in this group than their fans do. Houston's not the most physical cornerback around and Grimes' size (5-foot-9, which might be generous) could cause some matchup problems. But the Falcons didn't seem worried enough about either of those things to go out and splurge for a free agent.
That's because Smith and his staff believe they can coach Houston to be more aggressive and they believe Grimes is so athletic that he would have been a first-round pick instead of an undrafted free agent if he were a couple inches taller. The belief is that Grimes can make up for his lack of height with his rare leaping ability (he has a 42-inch vertical jump). Of course, it would only help the corners if John Abraham can produce another year of double-digit sacks and Jamaal Anderson can start showing why he was a top 10 pick in 2007.
3. Will there be a sophomore slump for Ryan?
That's usually a legitimate question when a guy has a remarkable rookie season. But this guy is different than any quarterback to come along in recent years.
Ryan's got an offensive line that showed it could protect him last year. He's got a top-notch runner in Turner, a Pro Bowl receiver in White and a solid possession guy in Jenkins. Add Gonzalez to that and Ryan's only going to get better.
Quietly, the coaching staff is raving about what Nicholas has shown in camp so far. They say he's a completely different player and person than he was last year when he was flying back and forth to Boston to be with his infant son, who was awaiting a heart transplant. Stephen Nicholas Jr. got a new heart in mid-October and is completely healthy now. His father is able to focus completely on football now and the coaches firmly believe he's ready for a breakout season.
It's obvious this is a make-or-break year for Anderson at defensive end. He's got to show something and show it quickly because the Falcons aren't going to be patient much longer. They've got Chauncey Davis, who's ready to play immediately, and rookie Lawrence Sidbury, who has lots of potential, waiting to take over.
The Falcons must be very confident that left tackle Sam Baker is fully recovered from the back surgery that interrupted his rookie season. Atlanta didn't go out and get any other strong alternative and that's significant because Baker is the guy responsible for protecting Ryan's blind side.
It's early yet, but the Falcons believe they might have hit on something when they signed veteran Robert Ferguson after Harry Douglas went down with a season-ending injury early in camp. Ferguson looks like a guy intent on redeeming a career that seemed to be stalled. There's no doubt the Falcons will miss Douglas because they wanted him to stretch the field. But Ferguson and veteran Brian Finneran might give them some quality depth.
The Falcons had planned to let Owens focus solely on playing cornerback as a rookie. But the injury to Douglas leaves the team with a big question mark at punt returner. Owens has return abilities and the Falcons are going to use the preseason to take a look at him in that role.
The Falcons went with Chris Redman as Ryan's backup last season and had D.J. Shockley as their third quarterback. But there's a chance Shockley and Redman could flip roles. Shockley's had a strong camp and has lots of upside. ... The annual speculation that running back Jerious Norwood should get more carries is rolling again. There might be some truth to that because the Falcons don't want Turner handling 376 carries again. But Norwood's still going to be a situational player and his carries aren't going to increase dramatically. ... White's contract holdout didn't seem to set him back. He looks like he's in the best shape of his career. ... Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was a force as a rookie last year, but the Falcons are going to ask even more from him this year. They want him to be an every-down linebacker. ... A lot of people like to bash the right side of Atlanta's offensive line. It's true that guard Harvey Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo might not be the most talented guys. But offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and line coach Paul Boudreau do a good job of playing to their strengths. Dahl and Claybo are aggressive as run blockers and Mularkey and Boudreau do a good job of covering up their deficiencies as pass blockers by giving them help and not having Ryan take many deep drops.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer checks in with Seahawks defensive backs coach Jim Mora, who says the team will figure out how to defend big plays. Seattle is on pace to allow 68 pass plays of at least 20 yards, up from 47 last season. The Packers' Greg Jennings visits Qwest Field in Week 6. Jennings leads the NFL in receptions of at least 20 yards. He has 11, four more than any other player.
Also from Farnsworth: Coach Mike Holmgren doesn't want to hear any excuses.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Koren Robinson and Josh Wilson could see more playing time for Seattle this week. Robinson has yet to play in a game this season.
Also from Williams: Highlights from Holmgren's mid-week news conference. Holmgren weighed in on the hit that injured Matt Hasselbeck's knee.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune quotes Holmgren as saying Jim Zorn's departure isn't the reason behind Hasselbeck's poor stats this season. Holmgren points to injuries at receiver and warns against making judgments too soon.
Also from Hughes: Receiver Courtney Taylor could have signed with Denver's practice squad.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times quotes Holmgren as saying Wilson will get more work at right cornerback starting this week.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is going through growing pains as a rookie. Of course, Rodgers-Cromartie isn't the only cornerback to struggle against the Bills' Lee Evans.
Also from Urban: J.J. Arrington isn't sure if he'll keep getting snaps in the offense, but he's happy to become relevant again.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Rodgers-Cromartie is learning that speed can't cover for every mistake in the NFL.
Bob Young of the Arizona Republic offers a primer for beating the Cowboys. He recommends inviting Carrie Underwood and Jessica Simpson to sing the national anthem.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune wonders how NFL scouts whiffed on Kurt Warner and Tony Romo, star quarterbacks who entered the NFL as free agents.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals' short-passing game might represent their new identity on offense. The team has scored 76 points in its last six quarters.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are collecting veteran castoffs, notably Ricky Manning and Jason Craft. Thomas also suggests why Fakhir Brown has yet to re-sign with the team. The collective bargaining agreement could allow Brown to collect two salaries this season, but only if he misses one game check.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says St. Louis Blues CEO Dave Checketts might have interest in purchasing the Rams.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Dane Looker's condition.
Also from Coats: Eddie Kennison doesn't mind being cut and re-signed in quick order.
More from Coats: The Rams have made a few changes under Jim Haslett, picking up the pace of practices, but most things remain unchanged.
Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News isn't the first person to accuse 49ers coach Mike Nolan of running a "vanilla" defense.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle writes about how the 49ers drafted Kentwan Balmer and Chilo Rachal when they could have had DeSean Jackson instead. They'll have to defend Jackson when the Eagles visit Candlestick Park.
Also from Crumpacker: The 49ers' Michael Lewis gets a shot at his former team.
Dan Brown of 49ers Hot Read says the Eagles' Jackson remains motivated to succeed against the teams that didn't draft him.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat provides highlights from Nolan's mid-week news conference, including the coach's belief that other players would help the 49ers more quickly than Jackson would have helped the team.
Also from Maiocco: Answers to readers' questions. He's not hearing anything on the trade front.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes that the Eagles chose Jackson with the -- get this -- 49th overall choice in the draft.
Also from Barrows: Jerry Rice mentored Jackson before the draft. The Eagles were impressed by the former Cal receiver's knowledge of the West Coast offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' high draft choices on defense. We're going to stick with this theme across the division today. I've prepared a look at the last 10 defensive players each team has drafted in the first three rounds.
Mark Emmons of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers player Ben Lynch, who is leading efforts to better understand and avoid concussions.Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Steve Breaston refused to run onto the field for introductions in honor of the fallen teammate he replaced, Anquan Boldin. Also, the Cardinals hold sole possession of first place in the division later than they have since the 1988 team opened with a 4-2 record.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic explores connections between the Cardinals' coaching staff and the Cowboys, who visit University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch takes Rams-related questions from readers. He thinks Dante Hall is "on a very short leash."
Also from Thomas: The Rams cut Eddie Kennison, then re-signed him almost immediately.
More from Thomas: Rams defensive end Leonard Little has high hopes now that he's healthy.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune describes Jordan Kent, recently signed from the practice squad, as the Seahawks' best deep threat at receiver.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at what remains of the Seattle passing game. It's not a pretty picture.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seattle defense faces a long list of talented running backs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says 35-year-old Eddie Kennison can still run a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range. Kennison, re-signed by the Rams, could play for them against the Giants in Week 2. The Rams drafted Kennison in 1996.
Also from Thomas: Torry Holt expects continued double coverage. The Eagles shut him down in the opener.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Kennison's only 1,000-yard seasons came with Al Saunders calling the plays in 2004 and 2005.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune wonders if this is going to be the Cardinals' year, finally. He cites Seattle's issues at receiver and Matt Hasselbeck's back issues as potential reasons for the Seahawks' demise.
Clark Judge of CBSSports.com says the Cardinals' opening-game victory was huge because Arizona won on the road. Even coach Ken Whisenhunt calls it a "very big deal" given how infrequently the Cardinals have won road openers.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation was impressed watching 49ers linebacker Paryls Haralson collect 2 1/2 sacks against the Cardinals. Was it a one-game deal, or a sign of things to come?
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle says Alex Smith and the 49ers are still awaiting word on Smith's shoulder injury.
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers expects Smith to land on injured reserve today. He also expects the 49ers to sign veteran Jamie Martin.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic touches on the balance the Cardinals are seeking between Kurt Warner the gunslinger and Kurt Warner the technician. Somers also wasn't surprised to see Whisenhunt go for it on fourth down.
Danny O'Neil and Jose Romero of the Seattle Times say Seahawks guard Rob Sims might have suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. Floyd Womack would start at right guard if Sims became unavailable. Womack's injury history would be a concern. Seattle already lost veteran backup Chris Gray to a career-ending injury.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revisits Mike Holmgren's comments about players having to earn their place on the 53-man roster every week. The comments rang true when Seattle made several roster moves.
Also from Farnsworth: A blurb on Sims likely landing on injured reserve.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals are looking for their first 2-0 start since 1991. That is truly amazing.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to dial up trick plays. We saw that Sunday when he sent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a deep pass route.
Also from McManaman: Arizona's 18-play drive in the fourth quarter was its longest in 12 years.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are expected to work out free-agent receiver Eddie Kennison as they seek help following Drew Bennett's injury. Also, the Rams' season opener drew a poor TV rating in the St. Louis market.
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com wonders if the Rams will respond to coach Scott Linehan after losing for the 14th time in 17 games.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Linehan entered this season determined to handle defeats more effectively. Now's his chance.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says the Rams' lack of enthusiasm in the opener stemmed from their inability to execute, according to Linehan.
Dave Boling of Seahawks Insider breaks down Mike Holmgren's day-after-game news conference. The Bills' fake field goal might have stretched the rulebook, but that was the least of the Seahawks' concerns following a horrendous opener.
Also from Boling: Nate Burleson was stunned to find out he'll miss the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck is no longer receiving treatment for his back.
And this: "Embarrassing" is the word to describe Seattle's opening-week performance.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Burleson's injury was of the non-contact variety. He simply planted on the leg.
Also from Farnsworth: A breakdown of the Seahawks' injury situation.
Greg Johns of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says backup quarterback Seneca Wallace might need to play receiver for the Seahawks. If not now, when?
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers are considering their options at quarterback while backup Alex Smith awaits word on his shoulder.