NFL Nation: William James
They acquired their backup quarterback and potential future starter, Charlie Whitehurst, from San Diego one year ago Wednesday.
By this time in 2010, the Arizona Cardinals had traded receiver Anquan Boldin, lost Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby in free agency, acquired safety Kerry Rhodes from the New York Jets and signed linebacker Paris Lenon, among other moves.
This March, we hear only crickets as the NFL lockout prevents teams from making roster transactions of any kind. The quiet period has shifted our football-related energies to the draft, which the league intends to operate pretty much as normal.
While draft classes can take multiple years to fully assess, free-agent crops tend to produce more immediate results, for better or worse. Let's take a look back at what NFC West teams got -- and still might get -- from their wheeling and dealing last offseason.
2010 unrestricted free agency
Best UFA signing: Fred Robbins, defensive tackle, St. Louis Rams.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo reached into his past with the New York Giants in seeking a needed upgrade to the Rams' defensive interior. Robbins outplayed the three-year deal he signed averaging $3.75 million per season.
Robbins started 16 games and collected a career-high six sacks for a defense that outperformed expectations. His presence on the line helped defensive ends Chris Long and James Hall produce at a higher level.
Worst UFA signing: David Carr, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers.
It's tough to fault Carr much for what was, by all accounts, a messed-up situation. The 49ers' general manager, Scot McCloughan, left the organization shortly after the team acquired Carr. The team changed offensive coordinators early in the season. Singletary didn't know how to handle quarterbacks.
Conclusion: NFC West teams signed relatively few UFAs last offseason, in part because new rules prevented players with fewer than six accrued seasons from hitting the market. Jay Feely, Paris Lenon and Rex Hadnot signed with Arizona. Robbins and A.J. Feeley signed with the Rams. Ben Hamilton and Sean Morey signed with Seattle. Carr and William James signed with the 49ers.
2010 additions by trade
Best acquisition: Chris Clemons, defensive end, Seahawks
Seattle and Philadelphia seemed to be swapping spare parts when the Seahawks sent Darryl Tapp to the Eagles for Clemons.
Neither player had reached his potential previously.
Clemons set career highs with 11 sacks and 16 starts while filling the "Leo" position in coach Pete Carroll's defense. Tapp had three sacks and one start for the Eagles, making this deal a clear "win" for Seattle.
The Seahawks also received a fifth-round choice in return from the Eagles, but the player they selected with the choice, defensive end E.J. Wilson, was released during the season.
Worst acquisition: Stacy Andrews, guard, Seahawks.
The Seahawks could still come out OK on this one. The team had Andrews in mind as a candidate to play tackle in 2011, and that could still happen. But Andrews wasn't effective enough as a starting guard to stay in the lineup even though Seattle had serious manpower problems on its offensive line.
Perhaps Seattle can put Andrews to better use in 2011.
2010 subtractions by trade
Best subtraction: Alex Barron, tackle, from the Rams.
St. Louis got nothing of lasting value in return for Barron, but the penalty-prone tackle was not missed. Rookie Rodger Saffold stepped in at left tackle and outperformed reasonable expectations for a rookie. Barron's time in St. Louis had run its course. The team was taking a risk with its depth by dumping Barron for linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who did not stick on the roster, but the move worked out well from the Rams' perspective.
Worst subtraction: Rob Sims, guard, from the Seahawks.
Seattle's thinking on the offensive line seemed disjointed.
Line coach Alex Gibbs retired a week before the season, changing the qualities Seattle valued in its linemen. Gibbs preferred smaller linemen, particularly guards. Sims was a solid starter, but he didn't fit the Gibbs profile. Seattle sent Sims and a seventh-round choice to Detroit for Robert Henderson, who did not earn a roster spot. The Seahawks also landed a fifth-round choice, used for strong safety Kam Chancellor.
The Seahawks used 11 starting combinations on their offensive line last season, and every one of them would have been better with Sims at left guard. Sims started 16 games for the Lions and played well, by all accounts. His presence in Seattle would have allowed the team to get more from Lynch in the ground game.
Conclusion: The trade that subtracted Boldin from the Cardinals might have qualified under different circumstances, but the time had come for Arizona to part with the exceptional wideout. The team picked up a third-round choice as partial compensation, a pick used for promising receiver Andre Roberts. The 49ers get mention here for the deal that sent Hill to Detroit and cleared the way for Carr's signing. Hill had a 10-6 record as a starter for San Francisco. Even if he wasn't the answer long term, he would have give the team better options in 2010. NFC West teams also parted with Deion Branch, Lawrence Jackson, Josh Wilson, Adam Carriker and Kentwan Balmer, among others, by trade last offseason.
Looking to the future
NFL teams remain unsettled from a roster standpoint while they wait for a labor resolution of some kind.
The Rams are the only NFC West team without serious question marks at quarterback. Lingering questions at that position will hang over the 49ers, Cardinals and Seahawks while the lockout continues.
Getting a new collective bargaining agreement in place before the draft would help those teams more than others by clearing the way for them to pursue veteran passers. Otherwise, these teams could feel extra pressure to address the position in the draft -- a difficult predicament given the hit-and-miss nature of quarterback evaluation in general.
Defensive end Chris Long (thigh) and right tackle Jason Smith (ankle) are both active and expected to start for the Rams despite their injuries. Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui, given only an outside shot at returning this week, was among the Rams' inactive players.
Also inactive for the Rams: safety Michael Lewis, cornerback Justin King, linebacker David Nixon, linebacker Curtis Johnson, guard John Greco, receiver Mardy Gilyard and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo.
The 49ers will play without third tight end Nate Byham (ankle), who was named inactive along with cornerback Tramaine Brock, cornerback William James, safety Chris Maragos, defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, tackle Joe Staley and tackle Alex Boone. David Carr is the third quarterback.
Staley made the trip, as did former starting center Eric Heitmann, who is on injured reserve. They were walking laps around the field during early warm-ups. The 49ers could get Staley back from a broken fibula as early as Week 17. Barry Sims will start in his place again Sunday.
Teammates Calais Campbell and Greg Toler, both starters on defense, will miss the Cardinals' game against the San Francisco 49ers. Both were named inactive. Alan Branch starts for Campbell (injured ankle) at defensive end. Michael Adams starts for Toler (foot) at right cornerback.
Toler had struggled some before suffering the injury. Adams is tenacious, but he lacks size.
Breaston will play despite a knee injury. Versatile running back LaRod Stephens-Howling is also active for the Cardinals. A hamstring injury sidelined him against Kansas City last week. Stephens-Howling has dynamic skills as a kickoff returner. The Cardinals use him as a running back and wide receiver on offense. He's particularly useful to them on second down, often with fullback Jason Wright and three wide receivers.
Inactive for the 49ers: kicker Joe Nedney, cornerback Tramaine Brock, cornerback Williams James, linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, left tackle Joe Staley and tackle Alex Boone. David Carr is the third quarterback. Barry Sims starts at left tackle for the 49ers. He was steady in relief last season, but perhaps a bit rusty against Tampa Bay last week. His matchup against the Cardinals' Joey Porter could be worth monitoring.
Inactive for the Cardinals: receiver Max Komar, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Marshay Green, linebacker Reggie Walker, center Ben Claxton, Campbell and Toler. John Skelton is the third quarterback.
I've addressed the subject in depth across the division -- first May 26 and again July 30 -- and it's worth another look now that teams have reduced to 53 players for the regular season.
This time, I'm going to break down the changes by position, listing players no longer on the active roster at each main position group (with new players in parenthesis). Departures outnumber replacements because some players finished last season on injured reserve, meaning they were not part of the 53-man roster.
Some players no longer on the active roster remain with the team (they could be suspended, deemed physically unable to perform or part of the practice squad).
St. Louis Rams (34 off roster)
Defensive back: Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Danny Gorrer, Clinton Hart, Cordelius Parks, David Roach, Jonathan Wade (added Kevin Dockery, Jerome Murphy, Darian Stewart)
Defensive line: Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, Leger Douzable, Leonard Little, LaJuan Ramsey, James Wyche (added Jermelle Cudjo, Fred Robbins, George Selvie, Eugene Sims)
Linebacker: K.C. Asiodu, Paris Lenon (added Na'il Diggs, Josh Hull)
Offensive line: Roger Allen, Alex Barron, Ryan McKee, Mark Setterstrom, Phillip Trautwein, Eric Young (added Renardo Foster, Hank Fraley, Rodger Saffold)
Quarterback: Kyle Boller, Marc Bulger, Keith Null, Mike Reilly (added Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis)
Running back: Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya (added Keith Toston)
Special teams: Ryan Neill
Tight end: Randy McMichael (added Mike Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun)
Wide receiver: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Ruvell Martin (added Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry, Mardy Gilyard)
Seattle Seahawks (33 off roster)
Defensive back: Jamar Adams, Deon Grant, Ken Lucas, Josh Wilson (added Kam Chancellor, Kennard Cox, Nate Ness, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond)
Defensive line: Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding, Nick Reed, Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill (added Kentwan Balmer, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Dexter Davis, Junior Siavii, E.J. Wilson)
Linebacker: Leroy Hill, Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis (added Matt McCoy; note that Hill is suspended for the first regular-season game)
Offensive line: Trevor Canfield, Brandon Frye, Walter Jones, Damion McIntosh, Rob Sims, Steve Vallos, Ray Willis, Mansfield Wrotto (added Stacy Andrews, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Ben Hamilton, Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus)
Quarterback: Mike Teel, Seneca Wallace (added Charlie Whitehurst)
Running back: Justin Griffith, Louis Rankin, Tyler Roehl, Owen Schmitt (added Quinton Ganther, Michael Robinson, Leon Washington)
Special teams: Kevin Houser, Jeff Robinson (added Clint Gresham)
Tight end: John Owens (added Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy)
Wide receiver: Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (added Golden Tate, Mike Williams)
Arizona Cardinals (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Ralph Brown, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle (added A.J. Jefferson, Trumaine McBride, Brandon McDonald, Kerry Rhodes)
Defensive line: Jason Banks (added Dan Williams)
Linebacker: Monty Beisel, Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, Pago Togafau (added Paris Lenon, Cyril Obiozor, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington; Hayes can return from the physically unable to perform list after six games)
Offensive line: Mike Gandy, Herman Johnson, Reggie Wells (added Alan Faneca, Rex Hadnot)
Quarterback: Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Kurt Warner (added Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton)
Running back: Justin Green, Dan Kreider (added Jerome Johnson)
Special teams: Neil Rackers (added Jay Feely)
Tight end: Anthony Becht (added Jim Dray)
Wide receiver: Anquan Boldin, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban (added Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams)
San Francisco 49ers (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Dre' Bly, Walt Harris, Marcus Hudson, Mark Roman (added Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, William James, Taylor Mays)
Defensive line: Kentwan Balmer, Derek Walker
Linebacker: Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Matt Wilhelm (added NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy)
Offensive line: Tony Pashos, Chris Patrick, Cody Wallace (added Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati)
Quarterback: Nate Davis, Shaun Hill (added David Carr, Troy Smith)
Running back: Thomas Clayton, Glen Coffee, Brit Miller, Michael Robinson (added Anthony Dixon, Brian Westbrook)
Special teams: Shane Andrus, Ricky Schmitt
Wide receiver: Arnaz Battle, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones (added Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler)
The first chart shows how many players are back -- at least for now -- from Week 17 rosters and injured reserve lists. Seattle has the fewest number back with 26.
The second chart shows how many players each team has shed since Week 17 last season. This counts players who were on injured reserve. Teams with lots of players on injured reserve had more players to lose.
What began as his critical look at the St. Louis Rams has turned into a four-part series. We're back with a look at the San Francisco 49ers after covering the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday.
Thanks to all who reached out and volunteered to engage me in conversation. Facebook friend Aaron was the first to come through with his thoughts, so here we go ...
Sando: I'd rather have Hill than Carr as a backup if I were the 49ers. He won games as the 49ers' starter, knew the offense and had the respect of teammates. I also understood the thinking in going with a more physically talented player. The 49ers wanted someone with more long-term starting potential. The 49ers should be better at quarterback as Smith becomes more experienced in the system.
Aaron: Frank Gore is Frank Gore; I love him he does everything you want a back to do. He has the power you don’t expect out of someone his size. His ankles are what worry me, though. Two years in a row, he has had to miss games because of them. Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon have not earned any of my trust. It almost feels like they are slower less powerful versions of Gore, with worse vision. Verdict: same or slightly better because the offensive line should improve.
Sando: Coffee should be improved in his second season. As a rookie, he was thrown into the lineup before he was ready and struggled behind a floundering line. As with quarterback, I think the situation has improved more than the talent has improved. The 49ers have had an offseason to set up their offense in a way that suits Gore and Smith together. They essentially had two offenses last season, one for Gore and one for Smith. There's still reason to wonder whether a back best suited for running out of the I-formation can produce consistently playing with a quarterback most comfortable with spread-type formations. But the 49ers have had plenty of time to remedy the situation. Gore should be in better position as a result.
Aaron: Crabtree gets a full offseason to get the playbook and develop chemistry with Smith. He looked like a pro when he came in and now he truly gets to show his stuff. I see a possible Pro Bowler. Josh Morgan is a solid No. 2 who can show flashes of breaking away. Ted Ginn Jr. -- if he catches the ball -- can be a game-changer from the slot or out wide. Even if he's just a decoy, Ginn will help with what I feel is the one weakness on offense -- speed. Jason Hill, I love, and I wish he could stay healthy and get a good chance. I feel he'd be a better No. 2. In the games he's played in, he's produced. The rest of the guys are playing for the No. 5 spot on the team. I'm not so sure Brandon Jones will make it or is worth what we spent on him. Verdict: better.
Mike Sando: The 49ers haven't had the personnel at this position recently to justify putting three wide receivers on the field during early downs at the expense of Delanie Walker or Moran Norris. Their three-receiver stuff was reserved mostly for third downs last season. This is one area where the 49ers need to diversify. Ginn is the key variable. The threat of what he can do could matter as much as what he actually does. The speed factor could upgrade this largely inexperienced group. The 49ers' wide receivers have 26 career touchdowns. Only the Rams' wideouts have fewer (13) among division teams. That isn't necessarily bad, but it's a reminder that this group must prove itself. Isaac Bruce's retirement opens a roster spot for a player who might develop. Crabtree should improve with a full offseason of practice.
Veteran cornerbacks. The 49ers appear to be moving on without 35-year-old Walt Harris and 32-year-old Dre' Bly. Their newest corner, William James, is younger (30) and has far fewer games on his odometer. The Seahawks have not re-signed 31-year-old corner Ken Lucas, who started six games for them last season and 106 games in eight previous NFL seasons. Lucas visited the Titans this offseason, but Tennessee signed 27-year-old Rams and Falcons castoff Tye Hill. Seattle drafted cornerback Walter Thurmond, 22. The Cardinals went younger at corner this offseason by trading Bryant McFadden, 28, while hoping Greg Toler, 25, takes over for him in the lineup. The Rams got younger at the position by parting with Jonathan Wade, 26, and drafting Jerome Murphy, 23.
NFC West storylines. The banter between Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis indulged fans of both teams. Division rivalries are fun, anyway, and this is definitely a rivalry. Some 49ers fans like to point to the team's storied past while dismissing the Cardinals as a long-floundering franchise. That thinking is fine if we're on a field trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's outdated in this context. The Cardinals have won the last two division titles. They swept the 49ers in 2008. The 49ers swept the Cardinals last season. Both teams have ascending Pro Bowl-caliber players -- Dockett and Davis among them. Both have young first-round quarterbacks trying to salvage their careers. Good stuff.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Kevin Smith are players the Lions can build around.
Detroit cornerback Phillip Buchanon lingered a bit longer than usual in the Lions’ locker room at halftime Sunday, receiving treatment for a minor injury. Really, there was no rush. The Lions were scheduled to receive the second-half kickoff, and Buchanon wasn't a member of the return team.
But these are the Lions, and seemingly on cue, tailback Kevin Smith fumbled on their first offensive play. With Buchanon temporarily unavailable as the defense took the field, Detroit coaches sent out newcomer Jack Williams. Earlier in the week, Williams had become the seventh cornerback to pass through the Lions’ revolving door dating back to the start of the season, yet another attempt to elevate their talent level.
On his first play, a 27-yard run by Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson, Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury. He will be placed on injured reserve this week.
Alas, Detroit is no luckier -- and only one victory better -- since compiling the NFL’s worst-ever season in 2008. I’ve seen the Lions play in person three times this season, most recently on Sunday. There have been a few encouraging signs, but overall I’m mortified by what seems to be a tremendous talent gap across most positions.
I can only assume that’s what coach Jim Schwartz was referring to last week during a conference call with Minnesota reporters. Asked to encapsulate his first season with the Lions, Schwartz said, “I’m certainly not discouraged but there hasn’t been a whole lot of encouraging either. I think the best word is determined. We know what our issues are. We are going to work hard to get through them. We still have a lot of work to do. We know that and we are determined to get done.”
The Lions could and probably should pick up their second victory Sunday when they host Cleveland. But a realist would say their best-case scenario for 2009 is 4-12, and even that might be stretching it. More importantly, as Schwartz seems to admit, the Lions remain deeply encumbered by a talent shortage brought on by a decade of poor drafting.
So while the topic is fresh in all of our minds, I thought I would scan the Lions' roster and divide the players into three categories:
- Keepers. These are players the Lions can build their future around.
- Worth Learning More About. For various reasons, I wouldn’t give up on the players in this group.
- Others. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
You can see the results of this exercise below. (No sense calling out the Others by name. It’s their island, anyway.)
A few notes and thoughts:
- As you can see, I came up with only seven nucleus-type players, along with seven more who have the potential to be part of a core group. Keep in mind that every team has a relatively small nucleus with a bunch of complementary players around it. I don’t think I was a particularly tough grader here, but a nucleus should represent more than 13 percent of your players.
- Cornerback is a position that many NFL teams have trouble establishing. But for the Lions not to have one nucleus-type player on either of their lines, at least by my reckoning, is most troublesome. It takes years to develop a good, cohesive lines. Last Sunday’s matchup against Minnesota provided an exaggerated example of the issue: Quarterback Matthew Stafford got pummeled while the Vikings' offense rushed for 152 yards and passed for 344 with only one sack. There’s a reason why the cliché still exists: It really does all start up front.
- For me, the Lions’ next step is to spend the rest of this season performing a similar exercise: Which players can Schwartz build around? Which ones are toast? Then you just start in one corner and start working your way out. If it were me, I would make linemen on both sides of the ball the top (and perhaps single) priority this winter.
- There are some good complementary players whom I left off this list because, based on age or history, it’s hard to envision them as more than short-term solutions. That group includes Buchanon, tight end Will Heller, cornerback William James and linebacker Larry Foote.
- I realize linebacker Ernie Sims isn’t on this list. I think he is and can be a good NFL player, but he might better suited to play in more of a Tampa 2 style scheme. Even before he started dealing with shoulder and hamstring injuries, it has seemed the Lions were intent on moving rookie DeAndre Levy past him. I could be wrong about that and am willing to listen to alternate theories and evaluations.
- I can’t say I had any specific criteria for making these selections. They’re based on what I’ve seen, along with what I’ve heard from people I trust. I consider this list a jumping-off spot for future discussion. I know some in our Lions audience are still mad at me for bailing on training camp, but hopefully we can move past that.
Let me know what you think, and we’ll continue to revisit the topic through the second half of the season and into the winter.
That's bad news for the Bengals.
Since 2000, and not counting games at the end of the season that didn't have meaning because the Colts had sewn up their playoff position, Manning is 11-1 in games after he didn't throw a touchdown pass, with 29 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
The Colts have won five in a row, all by six points or fewer. If they win this one by six or fewer, they'll be the first team ever with such a six-game streak.
Can the Bengals put up that sort of resistance? They've been outscored by an average of 13.2 points a game.
Tidbits: Bengals tight end Ben Utecht spent the last three seasons with the Colts ... Playing for the Titans, Antwan Odom had two sacks in his most recent game against the Colts, both of Jim Sorgi ... Odom (shoulder) and Utecht (foot) will be miss Sunday's game ... Marvin Harrison caught three touchdown passes the last time he played against the Bengals, on Dec. 18, 2006.
Those numbers could bode well for Houston. Rookie running back Steve Slaton has been super-productive in his last three games with 56 carries for 359 yards -- that's 6.4 yards per carry -- to go with three touchdowns. He's 96 yards away from 1,000. He'll be taking handoffs from Matt Schaub, back at quarterback after a four-game layoff recovering from a knee injury.
Houston has won two in a row and looks for its second three-game win streak of the season.
Tidbits: In his only game against the Packers, receiver Andre Johnson caught six passes for 107 yards ... Mario Williams is third in the NFL since 2007 with 25 sacks ... Houston was 3-1 in December last year, while the Packers have won seven of their last eight games in the month.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) at Chicago Bears (6-6), 1 p.m. ET
Since 2000, running back Fred Taylor leads the NFL with 13 100-yard rushing games against the NFC. But he's averaging less than 42 yards a game this year and the way the Bears have played the run, it seems unlikely Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew, who has six rushing TDs in his last five games, will break out. In nine games against teams other than the Vikings or Packers, Chicago has allowed 59.2 ground yards a game and 2.6 yards a carry.
Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard hasn't been on the injury report this week, but he has been banged up. He's fared well in his career against NFC teams with a 7-1 record, and in his last four he has a 96.8 passer rating. However, he's been sacked 11 times in his last three games.
Tidbits: The Jaguars will start Drayton Florence at cornerback in place of Rashean Mathis, who's out for the season with a knee injury, and William James could play as the nickelback ... Chicago leads the NFL with 26 takeaways and Jacksonville has 18 giveaways ... When he last played against Jacksonville, as a Miami Dolphin in 2003, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had three sacks and a forced fumble.
Cleveland Browns (4-8) at Tennessee Titans (11-1), 1 p.m. ET
The Titans clinch the AFC South with a win or a Colts loss to Cincinnati, and clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Jets loss at San Francisco.
At plus-13, Tennessee is the league's best takeaway/giveaway team and Cleveland is tied for fifth at plus-6.
December football for the Titans means forcing the issue with the run. Against Cleveland's 3-4 and nose tackle Shaun Rogers, they will look to build on this: Since 2007, the Titans are 18-3 in games where they record 30 or more rushes. Rookie Chris Johnson will key the attack.
Most rushes of 10 or more yards in 2008:
1) Michael Turner, Atlanta, 33
2) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, 32
3) Clinton Portis, Washington, 29
4) Thomas Jones, NY Jets, 27
5) Chris Johnson, Tennessee, 25
6) Marion Barber, Dallas, 23
Brandon Jacobs, NY Giants, 23
Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo, 23
Derrick Ward, NY Giants, 23
DeAngelo Williams, Carolina, 23
The Browns will start Ken Dorsey at quarterback, their third different starter this season. The only other teams to use three starters this year -- Kansas City, Seattle and Detroit are a combined 4-32.
Tidbits: The Browns have won the last three meetings ... Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck will start his 110th consecutive game. He needs five tackles for his seventh consecutive season over 100 ... Rob Bironas has a league-high 14 field goals from 40 yards or longer this season, but not one attempt from 50 or longer.
INDIANAPOLIS -- In winning locker rooms around the league, after Sunday game plans unfold just as they were drawn up in meeting rooms, after kickers chase down the ball that sailed through the uprights for the winning points, smiling players often reach for the cliché about it all being a kids' game.
If football feels that way, how about keep-away?
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|Jaguars running back Fred Taylor ran for 121 yards in a win over Indianapolis Sunday.|
How's 18 minutes 25 seconds sound? How's 3:59 in the second half sound?
The formula best suited for the Jaguars happens, not coincidentally, to be the formula best suited to beat the Colts, 23-21. And that's just what we saw tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium, where Jacksonville converted eight of 14 third downs, ran 48 times for 236 yards and watched Josh Scobee's 51-yard, last-second field goal sail straight into the net.
A team that had struggled in the first two weeks and dropped games at Tennessee and against Buffalo hadn't produced enough first downs, coach Jack Del Rio said. Against the Colts his offense found ways to stay on the field. In the second half, when it needed five yards it got six, when it needed seven, it got eight (twice).
"When we sit on the sideline and our defense is out there and it's third-and-6 and a team gets six-and-a-half or seven, you're like, 'Shoot,' " Fred Taylor said, putting himself in Indianapolis' place. "You're getting ready to go and then ssssssssss, you're deflated."
Manning lamented an interception and a three-and-out that killed the first two of his team's second-half possessions.
Said Colts safety Melvin Bullitt, who started in the spot of injured Bob Sanders: "They just outplayed us, especially on third down. For some reason we just could not get off the field, we were always an inch short... It just doesn't make sense that we didn't stop them on third down. We have plenty of guys capable of that."
Taylor, who accounted for 121 of the rushing yards, spoke Saturday night at a team meeting. He now claims a 3-0 record in games before which he has delivered a pep talk.
"He's going to have to keep talking," Maurice Jones-Drew said.
Taylor, the been-there, done-that veteran, said he delivered only a simple message: "Just move the boulder."
On the team plane, perky defenders might be playing spirited card games. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the offense, tuckered out from following their leader's instruction, is getting a head start on a good night's sleep.
Other things I saw, thought, heard or found out as this tense classic unfolded:
- Over and over when asked about Marvin Harrison, I referred to training camp practices where I watched him cut with precision, catch with ease and look very much like the elite player he was before knee issues cost him the bulk of last season.
This game was doing much to change my mind. Manning looked to him a couple times on big chances and Harrison wasn't able to kick into fifth gear to go get balls that, if not perfectly placed, sure seemed gettable.
On the CBS broadcast, Dan Fouts suggested that the Colts look elsewhere during their last-chance drive.
But when Rashean Mathis was covering Reggie Wayne out of the slot leaving William James, in for the injured Scott Starks, covering Harrison, the Colts went right at the matchup. And on a fourth-and-2 from the Indianapolis 31-yard line with the game on the line, there it was: a perfect Manning-to-Harrison strike for 27 yards up the right side. It sure looked like 2002.
- It's great to grind things out and wear a defense down. But a sprinkling of big plays sure can help in the margin-for-error department. The Colts had four pass-catchers with receptions of 24 yards or longer. The Jaguars had one pass play of 26 yards from Jones-Drew, one of 17 from fullback Greg Jones and only four others over 10.
Jacksonville didn't have a reception by a receiver in the first half, which sounds dramatic until you consider that David Garrard completed only four passes before intermission, all to Jones-Drew. It would have been easy at that point to talk about their lack of play-makers on the outside and the missing guys, Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, who were brought in to aid the cause but are out recuperating from injuries.
But when the Jags needed those catches in the second half they got them -- Matt Jones converted four third downs, Reggie Williams produced a first down and Mike Walker's eight-yard catch put the Jags at the Indy 33-yard line, from where Scobee hit the game-winning 51-yarder.
- I tried to keep a running tally of how many times Manning was on the ground as the result of a hit. Came up with nine. Game stats had a sack for linebacker Daryl Smith and four other quarterback hits.
Manning looks a bit more shy when he's under pressure, which is understandable considering the protection he's used to compared to the protection he's getting from a patchwork line, which underwent an
other in-game adjustment when Dan Federkeil was knocked out and replaced by Jamey Richard. And Manning is still only nine weeks removed from the knee surgery.
- Quality information courtesy of Jason Paradise in ESPN's research department: Manning posted a passer rating of 118.75 on third and fourth down while he was only 40.38 on first down and 62.73 on second down.
Also, the Jaguars were hell bent on running up the middle or right. Seventeen of Jones-Drew's 19 carries went up the middle or to the right as did 25 of Taylor's 26 carries.
- Taylor's third-quarter 34-yard run that set up Jones-Drew's second touchdown was something to behold.
He started right, benefited from a block in the pack that kept Marlin Jackson from getting his hands on him, bounced backwards and headed left. As he turned the corner, he unsuccessfully tried to set up a block by Garrard, then just flew past him and found room up the left sideline where you would have expected there was none.
"That's how long it was?" he said when asked about it. "It felt like it was about 150. Foremost, they slanted that way. Naturally if I see a lot of the different color going that way, I've got to go opposite.
"Fortunately the linemen kept pushing, I was able to hop out of an ankle tackle, went around. David was trying to lead me, that didn't work, and then I just put my foot down and went North and teammates, they just kept coming, showing great effort. Next thing you know I am 34 yards down the field."
- On potential controversies: Drayton Florence's hit on Dallas Clark wasn't dirty from this vantage point, though it sure was scary. Looked like shoulder to helmet. Good to see Clark walk off and eventually return. Can't imagine what he'll feel like when he wakes Monday morning.
Yes, I thought the game was over when, with 29 seconds left, Garrard's fourth-down pass for Reggie Williams hit the turf. It was clear on replay, however, that Freddy Keiaho had bumped into him or held him up and was worthy of a flag. On a fourth-and-1 there, though, the Jaguars may have been best off handing off to Jones-Drew or Taylor, getting the first down and using one of their two remaining timeouts.