Impressions, random thoughts and notes midway through preseason:
Arizona Cardinals -- Dave McGinnis has the right idea. His defense is suspect on talent. He has a huge offensive line that potentially could dominate, control the clock and take the heat off QB Jake Plummer. The key is whether Thomas Jones, the No. 1 pick from 2000, has the stuff to bang it between the tackles. The Ravens didn't think so. The Cardinals may have some doubts, which is why troubled but tough RB Michael Pittman is still a key. As for Plummer, the Cards think WR David Boston will have his breakout season, and veteran Rob Moore (who missed 2000 with knee surgery) is due back any day. Rookie Bill Gramatica probably has won the kicking job. I'm not dismissing these guys.
Dallas Cowboys -- How bad was Quincy Carter in his first preseason start against the Saints? Well, owner Jerry Jones pulled some strings and managed to get Emmitt Smith, Joey Galloway, Raghib Ismail and Mark Stepnoski on the field at the same time to enable Carter an opportunity to at least taste success. Exiled Tony Banks never played with any of those guys. Looking for a positive? The Cowboys' defense looked surprisingly good, tenacious and fast against the Saints.
New York Giants -- Had they followed up the preseason opening stinker against the Patriots with a similar outing against the Jaguars, it would have deserved well-voiced concerns. But the G-men were so dominating, especially on defense, that they still have the look of a contender, if not a champion. On offense, the Giants have complete confidence in QB Kerry Collins, and WR Joe Jurevicius might come of age after Ike Hilliard (toe, dispute with team) opened the door. Something else the Giants have discovered: After tinkering with rookie Jesse Palmer's mechanics, they think they might have stolen a future NFL starter in the fourth round. The boy can throw.
Philadelphia Eagles -- Nothing spectacular against the Bills, but the Eagles have had an exceptionally good camp. Donovan McNabb is so good, it's difficult not to imagine him as a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback. The Eagles can't get over Duce Staley's successful (so far) recovery from foot surgery. What's even more pleasing is that the two new WRs, James Thrash and No. 1 pick Freddie Mitchell, are picking up the offense, and chicken-legged Todd Pinkston has a chance to be a playmaker -- if he doesn't break. Don't even ask about the turf. It's a joke.
Washington Redskins -- It's pretty bad, to say the least. Marty Schottenheimer probably wanted to give Jeff George some security, but by failing to secure their quarterback depth, the Redskins are fragile in the preseason because of George's shoulder tendinitis. There also happens to be the issue of whether the Redskins have any adequate guards to block the interior, which is why Schottenheimer is bringing ex-Chief Dave Szott out of his brief retirement.
Chicago Bears -- This is what happens when you hire a new GM in the middle of the year. Jerry Angelo is already setting the table for 2002. Cade McNown soon will be history. Nobody on the team really cares, but the release of DT Mike Wells definitely hurt morale. Oh, how is Brian Urlacher looking at MLB? Believe it or not, Ray Lewis has company; in fact, Urlacher might be physically superior. That's a little something for Bears' fans to celebrate.
Detroit Lions -- Biggest problem in Detroit is the natural one. It's a new offense, and a rebuilt line is going to take time. As for Charlie Batch, he's been more efficient with a 125 passer rating. Mike McMahon, the rookie from Rutgers, looks like a keeper and could develop into a starter down the line as long as he keeps his head screwed on straight. No. 1 pick Jeff Backus has had two solid games at tackle. Coach Marty Mornhinweg is showing that he has that great attention-to-detail command.
Green Bay Packers -- Let's see what happens against the Broncos on Monday night because the Packers took the Cleveland Browns way too lightly the week before, even for preseason. Brett Favre may be having his best camp. Looks like the light has come on for TE Bubba Franks. It hasn't come on yet for this year's top pick, DE Jamal Reynolds, who is learning that the big dogs eat puppies in the NFL. The Packers' D-line is hurting with a bunch of tackles banged up, but they do believe Gilbert Brown could be in for a bona-fide comeback. One concern: Coach Mike Sherman needs to loosen up. The Packers look way too stressful for this time of year.
Minnesota Vikings -- They have been one of the most impressive preseason teams. It's a dangerous read, maybe, because I do think the Vikings have played on a very high emotional plane in their two exhibitions games in the wake of Korey Stringer's tragedy. However, if Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss maintain their intensity from week to week, the Vikes will be more than a handful. I wonder whether potential litigation with the Stringer death will ultimately wear down the team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- They look like the same old Bucs to me. That means they're a playoff team. Super Bowl? Not yet. The offensive line is struggling, and QB Brad Johnson is not quite comfortable. It doesn't help that center Jeff Christy may miss some time, including the regular-season opener, with a knee injury Saturday night in Cleveland. The development of rookie LT Kenyatta Walker is huge. Oh, in case anybody hasn't noticed, John Lynch is a safety in name only. Perhaps to compensate for DE Simeon Rice's strength as a pass rusher and weakness as a run stopper, Lynch is even more like a fourth linebacker for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Atlanta Falcons -- Watch out for this team. Their first units have physically handled all three preseason opponents. They are much deeper. In fact, they have 12 linebackers; they like nine of them, and probably will only keep seven. OLB Keith Brooking, the former No. 1 pick back from foot surgery, is somebody NFL scouts say could join the elite status of a Derrick Brooks. Dan Reeves' move to reunite with ex-Giants line coach Pete Mangurian is paying off. Just ask QB Chris Chandler and RB Jamal Anderson -- they both have that Pro Bowl look. It is early, but the returns suggest the Rams and Saints have to look over their shoulders.
Carolina Panthers -- Perhaps the most invisible team in the NFL while George Seifert rebuilds mostly with youth. Jeff Lewis is hardly the answer at QB, so Chris Weinke makes sense. You might pray for the Panthers this week. They go to Baltimore to play against a very angry defending Super Bowl champion.
New Orleans Saints -- Rain has disrupted training camp the past 10 days, and it showed against the Cowboys. Dallas whipped the Saints' great offensive line. Aaron Brooks is going to be the starter, which shouldn't surprise anybody. He's taken all the snaps with the first unit in camp and in both preseason games, and still looks like he has the tools of a great one. The Saints will not slide this year.
St. Louis Rams -- I guess I need to see Marshall Faulk on the field and running like himself before I declare them the NFC West favorites, and Faulk is supposed to play Saturday against San Diego. That, and Kurt Warner must stay healthy because Joe Germaine has no real NFL experience. The defense may take half-a-season to jell, but they will get better by the week.
San Francisco 49ers -- Garrison Hearst is the key, and Sunday he looked pretty sharp running against the Raiders. Hearst's remarkable comeback will free up QB Jeff Garcia to come close to his Pro Bowl season because WR Terrell Owens is a stud. The defense is still young with work to do.
Buffalo Bills -- No matter how they struggle with a young team, The Prez (Tom Donohoe) will not blink. He believes they picked the right quarterback in Rob Johnson, but keeping Johnson healthy will be an issue until we see him line up for 16 games. Rookie RB Travis Henry could be the real deal. The draft class looks pretty productive, which it has to be, especially on the offensive front with the broken leg suffered by veteran Jerry Ostroski.
Indianapolis Colts -- Good coup Sunday when the Colts reached terms with DT Mike Wells, who was surprisingly released by the Bears for salary-cap reasons. Wells, a 315-pounder, will pair with another free-agent pickup, Christian Peter, to give the Colts more beef in the middle, which should free up undersized but active MLB Rob Morris to make a lot of plays. On offense, Peyton Manning is getting better, and Edgerrin James hasn't even stepped on the field in a preseason game. No. 1 pick Reggie Wayne looks like a real target for Manning -- which would take some heat off Marvin Harrison - but the Colts shelved Wayne with a sprained ankle this weekend. Bill Polian also may have found himself another small-college dandy in kick returner Drew Haddad (University of Buffalo).
Miami Dolphins -- Well, it wasn't all just talk after all. New WRs James McKnight and Chris Chambers flashed their speed for big plays Saturday night against the Chargers. QB Jay Fiedler was a happy man. The concerns in Miami relate to DT Tim Bowens (knee) and the left side of the offensive line, where G Mark Dixon (a Pro Bowl-caliber player) may have to move to LT. Overall, I see the Dolphins and Colts in a terrific fight to the finish.
New England Patriots -- Despite turbulent times mostly surrounding the Terry Glenn situation, the Pats' defense has been plenty good. Don't know if you can count the Panthers as a real test, though. Best news on the offense is that Antowain Smith could be the answer at RB. Right now, they are a mystery team with a favorable schedule.
New York Jets -- After getting bashed around by Atlanta, Jets coach Herm Edwards had his team in different form for the Ravens. What is most promising is an outstanding O-line blocking for Curtis Martin. And mark this name down -- Lamont Jordan. The Jets might have hit pay dirt with the 230-pound rookie from Maryland. He will carry the ball. He will score some TDs. The running game should make Vinny Testaverde and mostly unproven receivers more effective. I'm not ruling them out yet to challenge Dolphins and Colts.
Baltimore Ravens -- Most disturbing trend is obvious: To win or repeat a Super Bowl title, you must stay healthy. Just seeing more players carted off the field against the Jets gave you that ominous feeling. There's nothing the Ravens can do about RB Jamal Lewis. However, if Ravens VP-personnel Ozzie Newsome can pull off a coup in two weeks for, say, a Ricky Watters, then watch out. I really like what I see of Elvis Grbac, but that does not surprise me.
Cincinnati Bengals -- I can't believe I'm going to say this: Scott Mitchell has been the Bengals' best QB. The competition with Jon Kitna and Akili Smith is critical because the Bengals might have real weapons on offense, aside from RB Corey Dillon. Darnay Scott is back, the ex-FSU duo of Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans is better, and a surprise has been ex-UCLA wideout Danny Farmer. There, I said something nice about the Bengals.
Cleveland Browns -- Here's what you hear: Butch Davis has the Browns playing with a high level of passion, which is no real surprise. The core of this team will be its defensive front four. Opposing scouts say Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, the past two No. 1 picks, have been impressive, but the guy who really continues to jump out is DT Orpheus Roye, last year's free-agent value. On offense, the skill level is still marginal; the key is getting the O-line to come together. Tim Couch, who has looked more comfortable in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' scheme, took a pretty good pounding by the Bucs on Saturday. RB Ben Gay (note to Chris Berman: no nickname needed for this guy) has emerged as one of the great training camp stories of 2001. He's pushing fellow Hurricane and third-round pick James Jackson.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- Not to even compare it to the death of Korey Stringer, but when LT Tony Boselli went down in visible pain during Sunday's practice from a knee injury, and was subsequently carted off, it was a real bummer. I took calls from a few coaches and players wanting to know more about his injury, and nobody was taking delight in it. Boselli is not just the heart and guts of the Jaguars; he's one of the real NFL treasures. So, it was a relief to all that the injury is not a season ender. The bad news is that even with Boselli in the lineup, the Jags were overmatched by the Giants. They desperately need center John Wade back from injury. First-round pick Marcus Stroud looks like a huge load at DT.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- I guess I have to see how the Steelers look when Jerome Bettis is pounding it. Kordell Stewart was better against the Vikings, but his receivers were atrocious with too many drops. Steelers rookie ILB Kendrell Bell, a second-round pick from Georgia, is a big-time hitter when he can find the ball. Otherwise, there have been few or no clues that the Steelers are as good as their 9-7 record a year ago.
Tennessee Titans -- I think that tag I put on the Titans (the team that experienced the worst offseason) can now be removed. As suspected, Jeff Fisher has this team playing with its usual brute-force tenacity. I hear Eddie George looks very good in his recovery from toe surgery, and he should get a few carries Thursday night against the Eagles. Mike Green has followed up his good NFL Europe showing to lead the race for the No. 2 RB spot. WR Kevin Dyson is making a strong rebound from knee surgery. This team hasn't really changed. It's ready to contend again, and K Joe Nedney is showing his leg is plenty strong to replace Al Del Greco.
Denver Broncos -- Olandis Gary may have nosed ahead of Mike Anderson as the RB of choice. He catches and blocks better than Anderson. We're still waiting on Terrell Davis, but a degenerative knee condition suggests it will be on and off with him. On defense, Mike Shanahan contends that controversial free agent DT Chester McGlockton has been a model camp player. The only real blow this summer was news that Steve Beuerlein's elbow will keep him out at least half the season; the whole year seems like a possibility, too. By the way, if Alex Gibbs has retired as offensive line coach, he sure has a funny way of showing it. He is coaching the line like last year, the year before that, and the year before that. Maybe he'll cut back in the regular season -- that's the plan -- but I wonder.
Kansas City Chiefs -- This has been a much smoother transition for Dick Vermeil than the last time he unretired. Of course, his Super Bowl ring has commanded respect from the players, and the acquisition of popular QB Trent Green has been incredibly well received by players. Priest Holmes looks like the answer at RB. On defense, the Chiefs have not given up a TD in two preseason games. That comes with an asterisk -- the opponents were the Bears and Redskins.
Oakland Raiders -- This is a tenacious, veteran team with one of the game's bright coaches in Jon Gruden. Even though it has been difficult to see how productive Jerry Rice will be, you can pretty much figure the Raiders will offer a strong defense of the AFC West title. The biggest setback was the four-game suspension of DT Darrell Russell. Then again, Russell was terribly disappointing last year, and the Raiders tout a more active Roderick Coleman as an adequate replacement until Russell returns. Gruden is thrilled with rookie QB Marques Tuiasosopo even though he struggled Sunday against 49ers. My guess is the coach sees the second-round pick as a young Rich Gannon.
San Diego Chargers -- Doug Flutie is exactly what the Chargers thought he'd be -- a spark. But don't ever forget that the Chargers' new life on offense is a credit to Norv Turner. What the team needs now is to sign LaDainian Tomlinson; if Ronney Jenkins can break off big runs with Turner's savvy design and play-calling, how good can the Chargers be with L.T.? While Flutie has shined, Drew Brees was struggling mightily until he took the field against the Dolphins on Sunday night. You can pencil Brees in as the backup.
Seattle Seahawks -- This has been a fairly tough preseason when you consider a strong set of corners, Shawn Springs (torn hamstring) and Willie Williams (forearm), are down with injuries. QB Matt Hasselbeck has responded well to the Trent Dilfer trade, in part because Dilfer has been his usual class self. This team is a very tough read right now. They need corners (James Hasty?) and still could use DT depth. It makes a lot of sense to discuss a deal with the Ravens with one of the RBs, Ricky Watters or even Shaun Alexander, as bait. Alexander has disappointed Mike Holmgren with his casual approach to learning the finer points of the passing game as a receiver and blocker. No read on this team yet.