NFL Nation: Pacman Jones

Quarterback Jake Locker played a confident and efficient first-half. The run game looked good again. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey turned a triple play with a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all in one swoop.

Those were encouraging developments.

That was about it for the front-liners, and those positives were swallowed up by a pretty lengthy list of bad stuff for the Tennessee Titans in preseason game No. 2, a 27-19 loss at Cincinnati on Saturday night.

A look at much of what went wrong:

Third-and-long failures. Tennessee allowed Cincinnati to convert third-and-longs and string together three long drives before halftime as the Bengals built a 17-3 lead. The headliner in third-down defensive gaffes was strong safety Bernard Pollard. He and nickelback Coty Sensabaugh missed chances to tackle Mohamed Sanu on a 24-yard catch and run to the 1-yard line that set up Cincinnati’s first score. A bit later, Pollard couldn’t bring down a crossing Brandon Tate, who ran away from him for another third-and-long conversion.

Injuries. Both strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers (right ankle) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (knee) rode a cart to the locker room after suffering first-half injuries. Both rank high on the list of players the Titans can least afford to be without. The Titans don’t have a quality, big linebacker backup for Ayers and Wright is probably the most unique receiver on the team. Ayers was on the sideline in the second half, not in a walking boot per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean on Twitter.

Drops. Receiver Nate Washington could have made a tough catch at the goal line. He was well covered by Adam Jones for a while, but the ball looked like it went through his hands. Receiver Kenny Britt let a good throw from Locker bounce off his hands. Undrafted tight end Jack Doyle had a terrible drop on what should have been an easy catch for a good gain.

Run defense. Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard looked very good (seven carries for 37 yards). He took one carry 22 yards and went the same distance for his one catch. Bernard got a lot of his work on one drive and looked to tire out the Titans' defense. On a Cedric Peerman run, the Titans missed two chances at a tackle for a loss (linebacker Patrick Bailey and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua), allowing him to escape outside.

Missing kicks: After moving ahead 3-0, the Titans missed three field goals in a row, with two of the off-target kicks coming from Rob Bironas and another from Maikon Bonani. It’s bad enough that the Titans had to settle for field goals. Bironas hooked the first miss wide-left, and the second went wide-right. The usually reliable Bironas missed time recently with a back issue and this was his first preseason action. Hopefully for Tennessee, his problems were related to rustiness.

Solid fade: The Bengals got a very nice Andy Dalton throw and Sanu catch on a 2-yard fade in the back left of the end zone. Tommie Campbell wasn’t as bad as he was in the preseason opener, and he had a good play on him here. He did get his hands on Sanu early, but Sanu just made a good play. That said, he didn’t look to seize the job in this game. Alterraun Verner made two plays in the first five minutes of the second half. Forget the physical attributes. Verner is a just better football player who understands the game better and has superior instincts.

The second half: The second and third teams fared better and produced a couple of touchdowns. One gaffe of note early in the fourth quarter, however: Right end Scott Solomon crashed to the middle of the field rather than containing on his side. Young Bengals running back Dan Herron reversed course and ran to where Solomon should have been. The result was a 39-yard touchdown scamper that wound up providing the winning margin.

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.
The fourth and sixth cornerbacks drafted in 2012 are heading to the St. Louis Rams.

Montana's Trumaine Johnson, chosen 65th overall and in the third round, joins second-round choice Janoris Jenkins (39th) in a rapidly evolving secondary.

Johnson has good size for a corner, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 204 pounds. Scouts Inc. gave him high marks Insider in all categories except intangibles and durability.

"Would benefit highly from a structured environment and demanding coach who will challenge him and hold him accountable," Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki wrote. "Has the tools to become a No. 1 corner if he can be managed properly and stay focused."

The Rams are clearly leaning on coach Jeff Fisher and staff to provide the structure and coaching needed for Jenkins and Johnson to realize their potential. Fisher has worked with mercurial players in the past, from Albert Haynesworth to Pacman Jones to Vince Young and others. He'll need to be right on Jenkins and Johnson for the Rams to maximize their first draft class with Fisher as head coach.

Titans won't get to face Pacman Jones

November, 6, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans won’t have the pleasure of facing cornerback and return man Pacman Jones, as the former Tennessee first-round ddraft pick is a scratch for the Bengals at LP Field.

He looked good during extensive warm-ups, but was limited during the week by a hamstring injury.

I was surprised that a top-ranking Titans community relations official and a Nashville Metro police officer who works closely with the team were among those who went out of their way to greet Jones during warm-ups. Jones, after all, did more community relations damage than anyone during his tenure with the Titans.

The Titans will start Derrick Morgan for Dave Ball at defensive end, though Ball is active.

Cincinnati has Donald Lee starting at tight end for the injured Jermaine Gresham and Dan Skuta at middle linebacker for Rey Maualuga.

The full lists of inactives:

Chris JohnsonJim Brown/US PresswireThe Titans have a decision to make when it comes to the contract of franchise running back Chris Johnson.
The Titans are in a scary place.

In the first season of the Mike Munchak regime, they’ve said they intend to be a run-based offense keyed around Chris Johnson behind an offensive line expected to perform as it did two years ago when he topped 2,000 yards.

But Johnson's heading into his fourth season. Regarded as one of the league’s most explosive players, he’s due to make just an $800,000 base salary. The final two years of his deal can max out at roughly $2.7 million. Last year, he sought a new contract but settled for a shuffling of money he had coming later that boosted his 2010 salary by $1.5 million to $2.05 million.

He indicated that was a one-time deal and he’d expect the team to give him his second contract before 2011. Even if a labor deal is in place, an old rule that could carry over said the team can’t give him a new contract until a year has passed since that 2010 renegotiation, which happened last July.

At the player-organized minicamp practices earlier this month, he largely dismissed the contract issue, saying it wasn’t on his mind, how he was focused on being a good teammate and getting good work in.

He’s also said he’s willing to take more carries as the team works out its quarterback situation, where the team hopes a still to-be-signed veteran will handle things while rookie Jake Locker learns on the sideline. But Johnson expects Locker to be the starter sooner, and knows it means the run game could be even more important than it has been.

If the Titans don’t show a willingness to give him a significant pay increase and he decides to hold out, who will have the advantage?

Let’s look at both sides.

Here’s what gives Johnson the advantage:

The Titans do not have another skill player who approaches Johnson’s explosiveness or dictates what a defense does like Johnson. They’d be looking at Javon Ringer and rookie Jamie Harper as their primary backs.

The other guy they consider a major weapon, receiver Kenny Britt, spent the lockout getting himself into different variations of trouble and is likely to be suspended early on by the team or the league.

Munchak is an unproven commodity as a head coach who could do a lot for himself and the team with some good early results that show that his plan can work. Those are far more likely to arrive with Johnson as the primary weapon than without him.

Reports say the new CBA will force teams to spend much closer to all of the money under their salary cap. Rookie salaries are also in line to be more manageable. The Titans can spread some of that to veteran free agents, but could also use a share of it to extend their best players. Johnson would head the list.

If he’s not one of a kind, he’s close. In any survey about players with breakaway speed and the potential for a home run on any touch, he’s right at the top.

Here’s what gives the Titans the advantage:

While Bud Adams is eager to win a Super Bowl before he passes away and teams can turn things around quickly in today’s NFL, it’s not reasonable to expect the Titans to be very good in 2011. The guy they hope to be the new face of the franchise is Locker, who needs refining. Even with a big free-agency haul, they are likely to lack leaders and playmakers. They could well believe they’d endure life without Johnson more easily than Johnson would endure life without a paycheck.

They went 8-8 with Johnson topping 2,000 yards and 6-10 as he ran for over 1,300. General manager Mike Reinfeldt could tell Johnson the franchise could manage such win-loss records with the other backs on the roster taking the handoffs.

Although Johnson has done well setting standards of production, he has not showed great leadership qualities. He’s not looked to as a guy to be followed, he doesn’t spend his offseasons in Nashville, and although it’s not been with bad intentions, his constant talk about being faster than other speedsters and running for ridiculous yardage totals can amount to distractions the team could be well-served to be without. Those things make the team less willing to open the vault as wide as Johnson is going to want.

Although he had a solid season numerically, Johnson’s want-to was questioned at times last year. Yes, he was getting hit a ton, but there were a good share of runs where he seemed to surrender, and what sort of message does that send?

Money makes guys more of what they are. Does Tennessee have cause to worry about that with CJ? He’s flamboyant and sometimes selfish. Can you shell out big bucks if you expect to see more of that emerge as a result of the puffed up checkbook?

My thinking

The Titans need Johnson. He’s the guy their fans and the league want to see right now, and the biggest cause the franchise has for hope. I don’t see him getting the $30 million guaranteed he spoke of a year ago, but it’s not at all unreasonable for him to expect a big guarantee. Running back shelf lives are short and his time is now.

The new cap rules will force everyone to spend. The Titans invested the 24th pick in the 2008 draft on him. Having struck out with their first-rounders in 2005 (Pacman Jones, sixth) and 2006 (Vince Young, third) and with Britt (30th in 2009) on shaky ground, it’s not like they have a lot of guys in line for big deals.

Does Johnson bring some risk? Yes. It’s fair to wonder how big dollars will affect him when the Titans can’t get him to plant himself in town in the spring and summer and haven’t seen him lead the way they’d like.

He’s the guy they’re pinning a lot on, though, and guys like that cost significant money. Although having him disgruntled may be motivating, having him happy can be far healthier for the franchise.

Tennessee took the gamble on a small school-speedster in 2008 and proved smart. It may be hard to write the check, but the time to reinvest has arrived.
The Pro Bowl is a watered-down disaster and has no more outspoken critic than I.

But it’s still used as a measuring stick, and since it’s a watered-down disaster for everyone, it’s not unreasonable to look at for comparison purposes. (And it didn't used to be quite as diluted.)

The Texans released this team-by-team list of draft picks and college free agents who’ve gone to the Pro Bowl since 2002. If a team drafted a player or signed one as an undrafted free agent and he went to the Pro Bowl with another team, he still counts.

There are some quirks in the list. It gives the Texans credit, for example, for having drafted Jason Babin. But Houston traded up to draft Babin and then completely miscast him as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He was a bust for the Texans. But he went to the 2010 Pro Bowl after becoming a productive pass rush end with the Titans.

The Texans have found Pro Bowlers in top picks, as you’d expect -- Andre Johnson, Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing and Babin. Owen Daniels was the 98th pick and Jerome Mathis was 114th. Those are the more impressive Pro Bowlers to me.

The Jaguars have only found a couple of Pro Bowl-caliber players with lesser picks or in college free agency. David Garrard was drafted 108th and Montell Owens was undrafted. (Yes, Garrard did have one Pro Bowl-worthy season.)

The Colts and Titans have fared better in this category.

Indianapolis found Robert Mathis 138th, Cato June 198th and Antoine Bethea 207th. Mathis and Bethea remain key players.

And Tennessee unearthed Marc Mariani 222nd and Cortland Finnegan 215th. The two have combined to help fill the crater left by the No. 6 pick in the 2005 draft, Pacman Jones.
When I did some homework on this piece, I had a chance to chat with Gil Brandt, who helped shape some great Cowboys teams and now offers his insight for

[+] EnlargePacman Jones
Geoff Burke/US PresswireAn emphasis on scouting and information might have helped the Titans avoid the headaches they experienced with former first-round pick Pacman Jones.
One of the things that became clear to me out of that conversation was that Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge advantage in scouting. The Cowboys realized that by seeing a much broader pool of prospects, they could find super values. So they did things like have a scout assigned to historically black universities.

And such front-office architecture helped them find a player like guard Herb Scott, drafted 330th out of Virginia Union in 1975.

Dallas thought he was the 50th best player available. The Cowboys drafted him 330th and he was a two-time first team All Pro who played in three Super Bowls.

It’s hard to have that easy of an advantage anymore, of course.

But lest you think no rock goes unturned, consider this piece by Jack Bechta on how spending on scouting is not what you might imagine.

The fact is, plenty of owners used to spending big bucks on players, coaches and executives see scouting staffs as a place to save. Bechta says, and I'll bet he's right, it’s an area where spending more could actually pay big dividends.
"If I ran a team I would have the highest R&D cost in the league because I know it will save my team money in the long run and give me more wins. I would allocate more money on intelligence testing, character/social habit evaluations and practice habits. I would use more private investigators and even hire former highly respected coaches (and former strength coaches) to gather hard to get information from college coaches.

"Of course the second part of this equation is that you have to find coaches who can develop your draft picks. Why not hire a scout to exclusively evaluate other coaches and keep scouting reports on them?

"It baffles me that I can ask one of my current players (or even a college coach) about a prospect he played with or coached in college and he may tell me to “stay away” because of some obvious reason. However, an NFL team will never get the same Intel I received by just doing a little diligence. It also amazes me how one NFL team can pick up on a major character, work ethic or physical deficiency while others won't catch it."

At least one recent AFC South development has shown a scouting department shrinking, not growing. In May of 2009, the Colts eliminated the jobs of longtime player personnel official Dom Anile and several others in the scouting department. The moves came as part of restructuring efforts aimed at cost-cutting.

As for the sort of things that happen in scouting players, here's one that Bechta would certainly appreciate from the Titans and their bungled pick of Pacman Jones in 2006. The team gave some weight -- I’m not saying a lot, but it was part of its equation -- to the endorsement of a guy who’s West Virginia career overlapped with Jones’ who happened to be the son of a Titans assistant coach.

When investing huge dollars and a valuable pick into a guy who allegedly smashed in someone’s face with a pool cue at a bar, I’d say the team could have done a far more thorough investigation that would have steered it elsewhere.

I'd like teams to have such well-equipped scouting staffs that a recommendation like that would be diluted to the point where the people involved in the decision couldn’t try to soften the blow years later by talking about it.

If I’m a bad team looking to close the gap on the guys making regular visits to the playoffs, I’d consider really ramping up my expenditures for what Bechta refers to as a team’s research and development department.

My team would still miss in the draft -- it’s an “inexact art” as Bill Polian calls it. But I am guessing it would miss a bit less. And I’d want to know just how much that difference could mean to my franchise.
Is there less buzz about the upcoming NFL draft than usual?

I certainly think so. The lockout and labor impasse are putting a damper on everything. There has been no free-agency build up. And there won’t be trades involving veteran players.

ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Malzewski sifted through the past 11 drafts to find all the draft-day trades involving players.

There have been 37 such trades, or 3.4 per draft. That included two deals involving drafted players, and those aren’t allowed this time either. (Think Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in 2004.)

These trades included significant names such as Jason Campbell, Pacman Jones, Randy Moss, Trent Green and Ahman Green.

Last year the Jaguars gave up a fourth-round pick to Oakland for linebacker Kirk Morrison.

We’ll see no such movement in this draft and it certainly takes away one layer of intrigue. Allow trades for veterans in this draft and it could be way more interesting considering all the quarterback uncertainty around the league.

Quarterbacks Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton and Matt Flynn, who could eventually be traded, will not go anywhere.

Here’s the year-by-year review of the sort of trades we won’t be seeing.

2011 NFL draft: Cornerback conundrum

March, 11, 2011
LSU's Patrick Peterson might be the best player in the 2011 NFL draft, but history stands firmly against him becoming the first overall choice.

A cornerback has never gone first overall in a draft.

Pat Yasinskas' piece on the matter got me thinking about the Arizona Cardinals' and San Francisco 49ers' outlook for the position this year. Arizona picks fifth. San Francisco picks seventh. A cornerback could stand as the highest-ranked player available when the Cardinals and 49ers choose. San Francisco in particular has a clear need at the position.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCoverage skills and the ability to return kicks make Patrick Peterson a valuable commodity.
What to do? And what about that history on taking cornerbacks early in the draft?

Let's set aside quarterback for the sake of this discussion. The 49ers and Cardinals both need one. Both would have to strongly consider drafting one in the first round if they had one of the prospects rated highly. Let's assume, for our purposes, that they head in another direction near the top of the draft.

Scouting reports on Peterson suggest he's a special talent, not only at cornerback but as a returner. The 49ers could use his services in both capacities.

The Cardinals have more pressing needs in other areas. Their new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, is a former secondary coach and NFL cornerback. He'll have a strong opinion on Peterson, but he also badly needs pass-rush help at outside linebacker. If the Cardinals have an outside linebacker rated nearly as high as Peterson, they'll have to consider upgrading their pass rush.

A quick look at the eight cornerbacks drafted among the top seven overall choices in the past 15 drafts, ordered by overall position:

Third overall

Shawn Springs, Seattle Seahawks (1997): Springs picked off 33 passes and went to one Pro Bowl in 13 seasons. Injuries dogged him. He started 10 or fewer games six times. Springs also served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on steroids and anabolic substances. Springs was a good player for a long time, but his raw talent suggested he would make a greater impact.

Fourth overall

Charles Woodson, Oakland Raiders (1998): Woodson is a seven-time Pro Bowl choice. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. He played a key role in Green Bay's development into a Super Bowl champion. Woodson has 47 interceptions and has returned 10 of them for touchdowns. These are the sorts of credentials that will make Woodson a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fifth overall

Terence Newman, Dallas Cowboys, 2003: Newman has two Pro Bowl appearances in his past four seasons and 28 career interceptions. He has started 16 games six times in eight seasons. The Cowboys signed Newman to a lucrative extension in 2008. They like him. Newman is a very good player. Sometimes that is good enough, even for prospects drafted this early. The two players drafted immediately after Newman -- Johnathan Sullivan and Byron Leftwich -- make the Cowboys' decision look quite smart by comparison.

Bryant Westbrook, Detroit Lions, 1997: Injuries derailed Westbrook's career, preventing complete analysis. Westbrook suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in his fourth season and another one in his sixth season. He was out of the league by age 28. Westbrook picked off 13 passes and bounced back from injuries admirably, but they caught up to him in the end.

Quentin Jammer, San Diego Chargers, 2002: The Chargers named Jammer one of the 50 greatest players in their history despite perceptions that he hasn't quite lived up to expectations. Those perceptions could be misguided. Jammer is not flashy, but he is a good, durable cornerback. Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey have overshadowed him in the AFC West and made it tough for Jammer to earn Pro Bowl recognition.

Sixth overall

Pacman Jones, Tennessee Titans (2005): Off-field problems ran Jones out of the league. He returned with Cincinnati but has not come close to meeting expectations.

Seventh overall

Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns (2010): Haden picked off six passes during his rookie season. It's too early to size up his career, obviously, but Haden is off to a promising start.

Champ Bailey, Washington Redskins (1999): Ten Pro Bowl appearances and shutdown coverage skills make Bailey an obvious choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not much more to say.

Cowboys-Bengals observations

August, 9, 2010
This was a Hall of Fame Game in name only. It wasn't pretty to watch either offense, but the Cowboys have reason feel good about their defense, which provided their only touchdown. Tight end John Phillips had an excellent evening, but it was cut short by what appears to be a serious knee injury. With Martellus Bennett's inconsistency last season, the Cowboys were counting on Phillips to play a significant role in the offense. The way his knee completely gave out as he started his route was not a good sign. Now, let's talk about what stood out to me in the Cowboys' 16-7 win over the Bengals.

  • I know it was only one series, but left tackle Doug Free was outstanding in protecting Tony Romo. Antwan Odom's a pretty solid pass-rusher, but Free controlled him throughout the series. Even when he got knocked off balance on one play, he stayed in front of Odom. Before he got hurt, second-team left tackle Alex Barron did not impress me at all. The Cowboys' backup linemen made Geno Atkins look like he belonged in Canton, Ohio, on a permanent basis. And Michael Johnson also gave the Cowboys' blockers fits. John Phillips was the only player who consistently stayed with his blocks throughout the first half.

  • When I saw that Ron Winter was running the show, I knew we were in for a long evening. I know it wasn't his usual officiating crew, but he made sure they called everything. They hit Andre Gurode for a holding penalty on the Cowboys' first drive.

  • That was pretty entertaining to watch Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton match up with Adam Jones. The cornerback held his own for the most part, but Crayton and Romo fooled him on an excellent back-shoulder pass. Just exquisite timing -- especially since it's so early in camp.

  • Romo connected with Roy Williams on a crossing route during that first drive. The ball was a little behind Williams and it was high, but he snagged it anyway. That's a really good sign for Williams. I thought he and Austin made the most of their limited opportunities. Jason Garrett made it a point to get Williams involved quite a bit.

  • Felix Jones got bailed out by an offside call when the Cowboys were inside the Bengals' 10-yard line. He has to secure the ball in that situation.

  • [+] EnlargeBrandon Sharpe
    AP Photo/Ron SchwaneBrandon Sharpe of Dallas scored the Cowboys' only touchdown, returning an interception 6 yards against the Bengals.
    Through one preseason game, it doesn't look like the Cowboys have solved those red-zone issues. It was only one opportunity, but there was no reason to get bogged down inside the 5-yard line.

  • David Buehler made his short field-goal attempts, but he missed a 49-yarder by about 20 yards to the left. It was a gigantic hook, and that's something that has to concern Wade Phillips. You can handle a miss from 49 yards, but it's concerning when the ball's not even close. I Thought I was watching more "highlights" of Tiger at the World Golf Challenge.

  • I loved how defensive end Stephen Bowen played Sunday night. He was an absolute beast from the right side. He forced a poor throw from Carson Palmer by collapsing the pocket in the first quarter. The Cowboys will be just fine if Marcus Spears isn't able to make it back for the first game. Jason Hatcher and Bowen both played well against the Bengals.

  • What an awful deal for John Phillips. He was the Cowboys' best offensive player in the first half and he hurt his knee in a non-contact situation. I seriously think he was ready to surpass Bennett. He can line up in the backfield as the lead blocker and he can make nice catches downfield. He was on his way to being the best blocking tight end on the team. I really believe that. Tough, tough injury for a guy who was having an excellent camp.

  • Kevin Ogletree caught everything thrown his way, but he has to know where he is on the field. On his first catch, he sort of staggered forward and lost the first down. It was an awkward play from a normally smooth player.

  • Tashard Choice showed some nice acceleration on that 21-yard run around the right side. You have to find a way to get him more involved in the offense. He's too good to only have two or three carries per game.

  • Herb Donaldson, it was nice knowing you. You can't fumble on your first carry of the evening. Gibril Wilson made a nice play to poke it out of there, but Donaldson did not secure the ball properly.

  • I thought Cris Collinsworth made a really nice assessment of Bowen when he compared him to Jim Jeffcoat. He's obviously not there yet, but he sort of moves like Jeffcoat. He doesn't look very fast, but he always seems to be causing trouble in the backfield. Really good night for him.

  • I'm not sure what happened to third-string quarterback Stephen McGee. He looked confident early in completing his first five passes. But as the night went on, he became more and more tentative. You're going to get sacked if you hold it that long. He reminded me of Drew Henson tonight because he just took too long to process things. McGee has good athleticism and an excellent arm, but you need to unload the ball. Otherwise, a guy named Michael Johnson suddenly looks like an All-Pro linebacker. Mike Zimmer appears to be onto something with that guy.

  • It was a good night for former Texas Tech players. Jamar Wall did an excellent job in coverage. On one particular play, Chad Ochocinco could not shake Wall. And linebackers Brandon Williams and Brandon Sharpe both had big interceptions. Williams had a nice return that should've set up a touchdown. Sharpe picked off a Jordan Palmer pass and returned it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Sort of fun to see Tony Romo cut off an interview with NBC to celebrate the touchdown with a loud, "Yes!" And if I'm Carson Palmer, I'm in there tomorrow morning begging the coaches not to cut my little brother. For goodness sakes, Jordan Palmer looked nothing like an NFL quarterback. He held the ball too long, and then he made backbreaking decisions.

  • Sorry, but Robert Brewster looked like a bust on this evening. The former Ball State offensive tackle was taken in the third round in '09. He promptly tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights. On Sunday, he had no chance against the Bengals backup defensive ends and linebackers. He wasn't strong enough to anchor his body and he just got bullied the whole time he was in there. I was not impressed with anything about his performance.

  • Brian McCann's back there trying to make a play on a punt return and Brandon Ghee just nails him. I know they said Ghee was blocked into McCann, but I thought the play could've been avoided. You hate to see a defenseless player take a shot in the chest like that.

  • I thought Danny McCray had a nice outing. He had the interception, but he also was very active on special teams. The Cowboys wanted more turnovers this season, and on Sunday, they caused four. Jason Hatcher applied the pressure that led to McCray's interception. Did I mention how poorly the Bengals' backup quarterbacks played?

  • Wall had a solid game, but he got burned going for an interception on a pass to Matt Jones.

  • The Cowboys' young linebackers were incredibly active. Insider backer Jason Williams flattened one of the Bengals' running backs and Brandon Williams was flying all over the field. Also strong showings by Victor Butler and Steve Octavien. It looks like the Cowboys have a ton of depth at linebacker based on what we saw Sunday night. And rookie Sean Lee didn't even play because of a quadriceps injury that has slowed him early in camp.

  • Great special teams play by former Oklahoma standout Manuel Johnson to help the Cowboys down a Mat McBriar punt at the 1-yard line.

  • I liked how Marcus Dixon played in the second half. He was very active and he always seemed to be in the right place. If Jordan Palmer's going to hold the ball, Butler and Dixon are going to get to him. For a first preseason game, the defense was very impressive.

  • I thought Marion Barber looked quick early in the game. And he brought a ton of energy to the offense. I think the Cowboys will try to do a better job of keeping him fresh for the fourth quarter this season.

  • Former University of Texas star Jordan Shipley burned the Cowboys for a 64-yard punt return. Apparently Carson Palmer has been raving about Shipley. Shipley and Wall have faced each other several times in Big 12 play. Shipley certainly got the best of Wall with a nice move in the open field. And McBriar's one of the best punters in the league, but open-field tackling's not his strength.

  • It's probably time to end the Pat McQuistan era in Dallas. He's just not quick enough to hold off defensive tackles. And if you run a stunt against him, he's in big trouble.

  • Rookie running back Lonyae Miller out of Fresno State had his moments. He'll be a good practice squad candidate.

  • Overall, not a bad first outing. The Phillips injury is tough blow.

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 31, 2010
NFC History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: History in that spot.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams' decision at No. 1 will likely come down to quarterback Sam Bradford or defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.

NFL teams have taken three quarterbacks first overall in the past five years. Alex Smith (49ers, 2005) has been mostly disappointing, although he has showed signs of progress lately. JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 2007) is looking like a flat-out bust. Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2009) hasn't played long enough for anyone to know.

The Rams won't find much comfort in analyzing defensive tackles taken first overall lately. NFL teams haven't drafted one first overall since the Bengals selected "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson in 1994.

Nine of the last 15 top picks were quarterbacks. Four were linemen. One was a running back. One was a receiver.

Seattle Seahawks

The sixth overall choice is high enough for Seattle to select the top-rated player at one of the less important positions. That's what the Redskins did when they drafted safety LaRon Landry sixth in 2007 and what the 49ers did when they chose tight end Vernon Davis sixth a year earlier.

The alternative could be selecting the second-rated player at one of the marquee positions. Andre Smith (Bengals, 2009) was the second offensive tackle selected in his class. Vernon Gholston (Jets, 2008) was the second defensive end in his class, though he became a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.

It's also possible the Seahawks could find the first offensive tackle or defensive end available at No. 6. The probably won't look for a cornerback that early. Adam "Pacman" Jones (Titans, 2005) was the last corner taken sixth overall.

The Seahawks also hold the 14th overall choice. Three of the last five players taken in that spot were defensive backs, including the Jets' sensational Darrelle Revis. The Bears found the third-rated tackle at No. 14 when they drafted Chris Williams in 2008, but Seattle probably will not have that option in this draft. Too many teams ahead of the Seahawks could be targeting tackles. It's one reason Seattle could take one sixth.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers could use an offensive tackle. The 13th overall choice hasn't been particularly lucky at the position. The Saints' Jammal Brown, chosen 13th in 2005, is the only offensive lineman selected in the spot since the Houston Oilers drafted Brad Hopkins in 1993.

Relatively few offensive linemen have gone between the 11th and 16th picks during that time.

The last four picks at No. 13: defensive end Brian Orakpo (Redskins, 2009), running back Jonathan Stewart (Panthers, 2008), defensive lineman Adam Carriker (Rams, 2007), defensive end Kamerion Wimbley (Browns, 2006). Orakpo and Wimbley are 3-4 outside linebackers. The 49ers could use another one of those.

San Francisco also holds the 17th overall choice. Guard Steve Hutchinson (Seahawks, 2001) was the last true star taken in that slot. More recently, defensive ends Jarvis Moss (Broncos, 2007) and David Pollack (Bengals, 2005) haven't panned out. Moss reportedly contemplated retirement amid struggles adapting to a 3-4 scheme last season. A neck injury forced Pollack into retirement before he had a chance to develop.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals could use another linebacker and they could do much worse than finding a player as good as Clay Matthews, who went to Green Bay at No. 26 last year.

The 26th spot, which also produced potential Hall of Famers Alan Faneca and Ray Lewis years ago, hasn't been as kind to other teams recently.

Tackle Duane Brown (Texans, 2008), defensive end Anthony Spencer (Cowboys, 2007), defensive tackle John McCargo (Bills, 2006), center Chris Spencer (Seahawks, 2005) were 26th overall picks.

The Cardinals can't do much worse than the 49ers have fared at No. 26. San Francisco drafted tackle Kwame Harris (2006) and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller (1997) in that spot.
The Jaguars are on the list of teams reportedly giving Adam "Pacman" Jones a look.

This made some Jacksonville fans panicky.

As Jonathan Loesche pointed out in an effort to calm fans before I could say roughly the same, it likely amounts to “due diligence tire kicking.”

I don’t expect him back in the league, but I can understand why a team that hasn’t seen him up close might give him a look.

If a team 's personnel people fall for yet another “changed man” routine, it will come back to bite them. A guy with this many strikes simply isn’t worth the risk. I covered Jones for his entire disastrous tenure in Tennessee and am completely comfortable saying he’s toxic.

Jags GM Gene Smith has been nicknamed "Clean Gene" by Pete Prisco on the radio in Jacksonville.

Jones wasn’t a good player last time we saw him in Dallas, and more time away is unlikely to have made him better.

For A GM who leans toward drafting college captains who can lead and fall in line with the program and who runs a team that had a bitter experience with Jerry Porter, Jones would be a complete non-fit.

UPDATE, 5:09 p.m.: Jones did not show up for the workout, which was to follow Tulane's pro day, according to James Varney. A shocker. I am sure Jones will have an excuse ready and maybe it'll even be legit. If he attempts to set up another try, the interested parties list will be even smaller. Hat tip to @brian_mcintyre for the link.

UPDATE, 5:53 p.m.: Now, according to my collegue Kevin Seifert, Jones is working out. I cannot believe that something involving Jones and his people would involve such confusion.

Draft watch: AFC South

February, 24, 2010
NFC Busts/Gems: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Busts and late-round gems.

Houston Texans

The previous regime traded with division rival Tennessee to get Western Michigan linebacker Jason Babin with a second first-round pick in 2004 and he never became what they envisioned. The first-rounder from the next year, Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson, wasn’t good either. Johnson flashed some but wasn’t long-term help. Wide receiver David Anderson (seventh round from Colorado State in 2006) is a quality slot receiver, and probably the team’s best late-round pick.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts traded up in 2007 to take Arkansas offensive tackle Tony Ugoh 42nd overall. He was the man to replace Tarik Glenn when he surprised the team by retiring the same year. But Ugoh lost his starting job in 2009 and was often inactive. Two third-rounders from the same draft also faded: cornerback Dante Hughes from Cal didn’t make it out of camp in 2009 and Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock quit football in 2008. Late-round finds abound: Howard safety Antoine Bethea (sixth round) is a Pro Bowl talent; Mount Union receiver Pierre Garcon (sixth round, 2008) just had a breakout season; punter/kickoff man Pat McAfee from West Virginia (seventh round, 2009) is a consistent performer. And Indianapolis does consistently well with undrafted rookies, such as safety Melvin Bullitt and cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Jacksonville Jaguars

First-round busts have been a major reason the Jaguars haven’t broken through as a consistent contender: receivers R. Jay Soward of USC in 2000, Reggie Williams from Washington in 2004 and Matt Jones from Arkansas in 2005 are gone and safety Reggie Nelson (Florida, 2007) and defensive end Derrick Harvey (Florida, 2008) rank as major underachievers. Late-round gems? Purdue guard Uche Nwaneri was a 2007 fifth-rounder and has started a lot of games and Florida’s Bobby McCray was a good defensive end for a seventh-rounder in 2004. James Harris was ousted as the personnel chief and the team seems on a better track under Gene Smith, who was named GM about a year ago.

Tennessee Titans

Any list of recent high-ranking failures has to start with first-round cornerback Pacman Jones, sixth overall from West Virginia in 2005. He was probably the best defensive football player there, but the Titans failed miserably in researching his personality. Other busts who hurt them: Ben Troupe (second-round tight end from Florida in 2004), Andre Woolfolk (first-round cornerback from Oklahoma in 2003) and Tyrone Calico (second-round receiver in 2003). Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was an All-Pro in 2008 and heads any list of recent late-round gems. He was a seventh-rounder from Samford in 2006. Tight end Bo Scaife was a sixth-rounder from Texas in 2005 and promising defensive end Jacob Ford from Central Arkansas was a sixth-rounder in 2007.

Checking in on the Joneses

February, 12, 2010
A couple of AFC South Joneses are in the news.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesMatt Jones could be valuable to the Titans as a possession receiver.
Former Jaguars receiver Matt Jones is apparently deciding between the Titans and Bengals for an attempted comeback. Former Titans and Cowboys corner and return man Adam "Pacman" Jones got a look by the Bengals, too.
Let’s state the obvious first: While they’ve both had issues, Pacman’s rap sheet makes Matt’s look like a Post-it note.

More importantly, when last we saw Matt Jones, he was actually playing the best NFL ball of his career.

Had he developed into the deep threat you’d expect from a first-round pick? No. But he was a reliable target for an 8-yard pass on third-and-7, and while there isn’t a ton of glory in that, there is value in it.

In Tennessee he’d be in the mix for the fourth or fifth spot in the receiving corps, behind Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Justin Gage and jostling with Lavelle Hawkins. If Jones signs and sticks, he could be irrelevant if everyone is healthy, and a big piece of depth when someone gets hurt.

Pacman Jones was not playing anything close to his best ball when we last saw him in 2008 playing for the Cowboys in a disappointing return from his 2007 suspension.

Now, after another year out of the league, I can’t imagine him resurfacing to be an impact player. Is the potential for him to surprise worth the time-bomb element that comes with adding him to your roster?

My answer doesn’t matter, or course, but it’s a resounding no.

Cowboys' chemistry experiment pays off

January, 14, 2010
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.