By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

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This week the subject is AFC previews, but first let's talk uniforms. Uniforms matter. Nice duds imply class, impress the ladies, distract fans from fumbles. Crummy, high-schoolish uniforms cause people to remember how many entries your team has in the L column. And the disturbing trend in the NFL is toward crummy, high-schoolish uniforms.

Recent uniform changes are driven by economics. Teams want to alter their look every few years to force the faithful to buy new licensed merchandise. The inspiration was the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, who one season had three different jerseys -- one red, one black and one white -- to force fanatics to buy all three if they wanted the set. Sports owners noticed, and in the past decade about half the NFL's clubs have altered their looks with merchandise sales in mind.

John Elway
The Broncos' orange jerseys were so garish that any new uniform would be considered an upgrade.

One of the first revisions was dreadful enough to make strong men faint. TMQ refers, of course, to the Broncos' "rollerball" look. But awful as the rollerball unis are, in a sense they are faithful to Denver lore, given that the team's previous orange-and-blue look was also awful; the rollerball variation dared to be equally ridiculous, thus appeasing the football gods. And sure enough, shortly after going rollerball, the Broncos won their first Super Bowl. As, shortly after adopting their much-mocked striped helmets, the Bengals qualified for their first Super Bowl. Such has given rise to a folk wisdom that changing the look brings clubs luck. And indeed, seven of the last eight teams to alter their unis made the playoffs the year following the switch.

But this is no excuse for taking handsome jerseys and making them ugly. Consider that the Houston Oilers had one of the best sports looks ever, aqua blue shimmering with what appeared to be a metallic paint job. Morphing into the Tennessee Titans, this team tossed aside its great uniforms for blah colors in a fussy, blocky pattern that was pure high school.

The make-them-ugly fad has since taken over NFL jersey-dom, with the Cowboys, Giants, Jets and Patriots in recent seasons all revising uniforms to make them worse. Those Jets unis looked nice in 1968, but it's not 1968; and the Giants' new gray-pants edition seems intended to make the G-Men look slow. Only the Eagles and Rams uniforms Release 2.0 qualify as upgrades.

Which brings us to this year's new couturiers, the Seahawks, the Texans and the Bills.

Seattle took a perfectly good light-blue base color and turned it navy. The navy in Seattle's new look is so dark, the J. Crew catalog might call it Stealth Technology Navy. Do the Hawks think this color will make their players harder to see? Considering it has been 18 years since the Seahawks won a postseason game, making Seattle players harder to see might be a humanitarian gesture.

Shaun Alexander
AP
Shaun Alexander's Seahawks can't look much worse in new uniforms.

Next to the lovely cow-inspired look of the Texans (check the lovely cow-inspired helmet logo here). Owing to the bovine theme, TMQ will call this franchise the Houston Moo-Cows or the Bum Steers, depending on record. Getting the jump on J. Crew, officially Houston says its colors are "Liberty White, Battle Red and Deep Steel Blue." To TMQ, the hues sure look like Copy-Machine White and On-Sale Mascara Red. The blue is so dark J. Crew would call it Five Minutes To Midnight Blue, while TMQ christens the tint In The Midnight Hour She Wants More! More! More! Blue. The conundrum is, if Houston wanted to go red-white-and-blue, why didn't it choose the version of these colors found in the American flag? Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, the single most successful color scheme in world history.

Which brings us to the Bills uniform revision. When Tuesday Morning Quarterback saw the design he had a simple, primal reaction: to run from the room screaming, "aaaiiiiiiiiyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeee!"

The new Buffalo garb looks so much like current New England attire that when the Bills play the Pats, Drew Bledsoe isn't going to know which huddle to join. And the Bills have tossed out red as their accent color, replacing it with gray. Gray -- now there's a color that really pops. And the away jerseys are so fussy, they make Denver's rollerball duds seem a clean design. But these are not the reasons for TMQ's primal scream. The reason is that Buffalo had been using traditional American flag red-white-and-blue, and now abandons that combination. In other words, the Buffalo Bills thought they could improve on red, white and blue.

Drew Bledsoe
AP
Drew Bledsoe might have trouble telling the Bills' new uniform from his old Patriot duds.

The bright, radiant Flag Blue of decades of Buffalo unis has been replaced with a color that the team calls Deep Navy but that, to TMQ, looks more like 19th Century Rusting Russian Dreadnaught Aft Bulkhead Blue. The colors of the American flag are not good enough for the Buffalo Bills! Oh, the football gods are going to punish the team for this affront. Around the Genesee Cream Ale taps of a hundred Western New York and Ontario sports bars, there will be rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.

Given that most NFL uniform changes are for the worst, TMQ feels a sigh of contentment whenever he looks on the attire of the Green Bay Packers. Green, yellow and brown; no modern design consultant would even consider that combination, yet it glistens on the field. Please tell me the Packers will never change this look, which dates to 1950. (See the Pack history page.)

TMQ finds some consolation in the thought that long after you and I have departed this stage of life and are trying to scalp tickets to meet the football gods, Green Bay's colors will be the same. Let's hope that 1,000 years from now when the Pack is teleporting to Rigel for an away game under the double suns -- simulcast to the outer galactic rim by ESPN, of course -- the green, yellow and brown will be exactly as they are today.

In other NFL news, many readers wrote in to complain that placing last week's Cheerleader of the Week at the bottom of the column caused the cheesecake to be unnecessarily hard to find. Good point! So ....

Nichole
If Nichole has her way, the Rams' cheerleaders might be soon donning purple and red uniforms.

Cheerleader of the Week
This week's recipient, from the second-place finishers of last season, is abs-of-steel Nichole of the Rams. According to her team bio, she works as a sales account executive and her favorite color is "purple/red." Nichole, make up your mind!

The Rams pep squad has several visually impressive members, so Cheerleader of the Week might return to this roster in the future. But such babes can't possibly be from St. Louis; they must fly them in.

And now TMQ's AFC team preview:
Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens make Global Crossing look like a well-managed company with a bright future. A year and a half after winning a Super Bowl, a mere eight starters are left from the victorious team, the rest lost to salary-cap implosion and terrible management decisions. The cap hurt of course, but the terrible management decisions are insufficiently appreciated. The Ravens are in shambles because after winning the Super Bowl, management decided to break up the team.

First decision? Unload Trent Dilfer. All he had done was win 11 consecutive starts, culminating in the Super Bowl. Get him out of here! It's still remarkable to think on -- a Super-Bowl-winning quarterback dumped by his own team mere weeks after the victory. The football gods were enraged, and vowed to punish the Ravens for hubris. ("Hubris" is a Greek word meaning "Brian Billick.") In came Elvis Grbac, who flopped and was himself waived. But Dilfer was not the only key Super Bowl performer shown the door. Baltimore also jettisoned center Jeff Mitchell, a fine player, in order to use his sal-cap space to sign perennially injured tackle Leon Searcy, who never played a down and has also since been waived.

So Ravens management tossed overboard Mitchell and Dilfer, successful gentlemen who wear rings, for Grbac and Searcy, two players who project incredibly scientifically advanced negative-energy fields. (Some athletes make the players around them better; those with negative-energy fields make the players around them worse.) Remember, these moves were not forced by the cap; Coach Hubris and G.M. Ozzie Newsome cooked up this canny plan.

Trent Dilfer
The Ravens changed their karma in a hurry when they showed Trent Dilfer the door.

Had the Ravens merely stuck with Dilfer and Mitchell, not only might they have done better last season but equally important, this winter's salary-cap situation would have been different. The huge paychecks given Grbac and Searcy ensured a Ravens cap crash in winter 2002, which is what happened, with a half-dozen quality starters either waived or sent to the Texans to get them off the books. The ghost of Grbac, for instance, haunts $4 million on the Baltimore cap this year; bringing him in not only screwed the Ravens QB situation, but cost the team at least one other quality starter, say Duane Starks.

Speaking of Ravens QBs, since creeping ignobly into Baltimore six years ago ("ignoble" is a Latin derivation that means "Art Modell"), the Ravens have had nine starting quarterbacks -- Vinny Testaverde, Jim Harbaugh, Eric Zeier, Scott Mitchell, Stoney Case, Tony Banks, Dilfer, Grbac and Randall Cunningham. Dilfer was the only one who played well, and for that they ditched him. Now the team will open the season with its 10th starter in six years, either Chris Redman or Jeff Blake; whoever wins, don't be surprised if he's replaced by the other, making it 11 starting QBs in six years. Coach Hubris is supposedly a quarterback genius -- just ask him, he'll tell you! But every QB he has touched in Charm City has turned out wrong. Come opening day, Redman or Blake will be the sixth starter on his four-year watch.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback still doesn't understand why the football gods showed favor on the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, with their conceited coach, Cleveland-shafting owner and the less-than-admirable Ray Lewis. But vengeance will belong to the gods this season. The football gods grind the clock slow, but they grind exceeding small.

Buffalo Bills
TMQ cannot fathom why the rest of the league showed so little interest in Drew Bledsoe; see Broncos and Steelers entries below. Buffalo might even be better off having traded a first-round pick for this gentleman, rather than waiting till he was cut in Patriots training camp and then obtaining him as some guy the cat dragged in. The circumstances of the trade fired up fans and made Bledsoe feel wanted and energized; if he doesn't succeed, a first-round pick is only 50/50 to produce a quality player anyway. (Bear in mind that neither of last season's rookies of the year, Anthony Thomas and Kendrell Bell, were No. 1s.)

Gregg Williams
Despite his great first name, Gregg Williams made a big mistake when he revamped the Buffalo defense.

But despite the Bills following the San Francisco model of cap recovery -- swallow your medicine all at once with a horrible season while new talent develops, the Bills having the most rookie starts (66) in the league last year -- Tuesday Morning Quarterback isn't sanguine regarding 2002. For one thing, this club has offended the American flag, and that can't be good karma. Also its defensive line could qualify for federal disaster aid. Owing to cap implosion, the Bills have recently waived goodbye to three premium DLs -- first-ballot Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, plus current Pro Bowlers Marcellus Wiley and Ted Washington. Remaining DL gentlemen are so nondescript, Bills coaches might be taking volunteers from the audience.

Speaking of Bills coaches, so far the buzz is good on the tastefully named Gregg Williams. But TMQ finds his decision-making inexplicable. When Williams arrived in Buffalo, the Bills defense was coming off consecutive finishes of No. 1 and No. 3 overall in the NFL. Williams promptly declared that he hated the Buffalo defense. He cut four veteran starters and tossed out the disciplined, position-oriented, two-deep coverage, 3-4 look of highly successful former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, installing instead the "46" defense with a 4-3 look, man coverage and wild blitz gambling.

Basically, the "46" has worked twice in NFL history -- the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Titans, where Williams cut his teeth. But each of these squads had premium talent and considerable good luck. Everyone else who has tried to use the "46" has paid dearly, since while most defenses are designed to cover up weaknesses, the "46" is designed to expose weaknesses and dare you to attack them. The "46"-playing Titans dropped from the top-rated defense in 2000 all the way to 25th in 2001, because they lost a couple of premium players and didn't get the sheer good luck on which this scheme depends. The Bills, third-ranked in 2000, dropped to 21st in 2001 with the "46."

So this year the players will know the Williams system better and improve -- to 15th, say. What was the point of breaking up a very successful defense in order to install a gambling-based system whose outcome, like most gambling, will usually be unfavorable? When you gamble, you might take a hand here and there, but the house always comes out ahead.

Cincinnati Bengals
Once TMQ made the mistake of calling the Bungles "mediocre," and numerous readers wrote in to note that this club can only aspire to the day on which it is mediocre. ("Moderate to inferior in quality; ordinary;" the American Heritage Dictionary.) Cincinnati not only has been the NFL's worst team in the past decade, with a record of .313 -- it is the worst team in all professional sports through this period, trailing even the L.A. Clippers.

This could not possibly have anything to do with the fact that the team's president is Mike Brown, its senior vice president is Pete Brown (Mike's brother), its executive vice president is Katie Blackburn (Mike's daughter), its vice president is Paul Brown (Mike's son) and its director of business development is Tony Blackburn (Katie's husband). Mike Brown inherited the team from his father in 1991, and installed this carnival of nepotism. Just before Mike Brown's ascent, the Bengals had been in the Super Bowl. Since, they have been the worst franchise in professional sports.

Among other things, the Brown family has become famous for penury in the name of diverting every dime to itself. Free-agents being wooed are flown in coach and expected to pay their own hotel miscellaneous bills, for example. This spring, the Bengals refused to provide their No. 2 draft pick, safety Lamont Thompson, with insurance against injury before he signed his contract. NFL teams routinely provide such indemnity to just-drafted players, this is a routine cost of doing business. The Bengals denied it to Thompson to save a few hundred bucks, and he refused to attend minicamp, setting the team back. Welcome to Planet Bengals!

Supposedly, Cincinnati has talent this year. Many touts are saying so, including ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli, whom TMQ lauds as the "Hardest Workin' Man in Sports Business" -- he files several articles per day in the offseason. Pasquarelli says the Bengals "have assembled a pretty decent roster." Sure, and France had twice as many tanks as Germany in May 1940.

Akili Smith
When you see Akili Smith, remember that the Bengals could have landed three No. 1 picks in exchange for his draft position.

(Note, Tuesday Morning Quarterback has a policy of shamelessly sucking up to ESPN; this is OK so long as the cynical, self-serving ploy is disclosed to readers. In the case of Pasquarelli, however, TMQ was calling him the Hardest Workin' Man in Sports Business long before appearing here.)

Look no farther for the Bengals' likely fate than to Jon Kitna, the league's lowest-rated quarterback in 2001. Nailed to the bench behind him is Akili Smith, third pick overall in the 1999 draft and now on a career track to be covering punts for the Edmonton Eskimos by this time next summer. Various detractors say Smith did himself in with a monthlong rookie holdout, and the holdout was indeed stupid. But that was three years ago; the operative stupidity here was the Bengals braintrust using the third pick overall on a guy who had started only one season in college. High selection created impossible pressure on Smith; if he'd gone late in the first or sometime in the second, where he should have, he might today be developing into a decent QB.

Bear in mind also that the nepotism carnival running the Bengals committed the worst non-trade in history in 1999. That was the year Mike Ditka, then at the Saints, was offering the world to snag Ricky Williams. Ditka proposed to give the Bengals three No. 1 picks for the slot used to select Akili Smith, plus other choices. Cincinnati said no to three No. 1 picks, plus other choices, in order to take a gentleman who has since been securely nailed to the bench. In essence the Bengals were offered a Herschel Walker deal -- remember how that cornucopia of picks made the Cowboys' Super Bowls team possible in the 1990s -- and said no. It's hard to believe that even an organization based on nepotism could have bungled so badly.

Cleveland Browns (Release 2.0)
A blank salary cap, many bonus draft picks and a 12-36 record so far. The Browns (Release 2.0) gleaned just four starters from the 24 selections they were awarded in their first two drafts, and one of these gentlemen is Kevin "Legend in His Own Mind" Johnson, last week signed to a long-term contract extension despite being a me-first player and a bad influence in the locker room. TMQ sees the new Browns as locked in a cycle of averageness with no sign this will change in 2002.

Fun factoid: despite a losing record and less-than-glam location, according to Forbes the Browns, worth $600 million, are the league's third most valuable franchise, trailing only the R*dsk*ns and the 'Boys. Concessionary terms on the fabulous new stadium are the key. TMQ admires that this facility is named Cleveland Browns Stadium, not after a corporation, but does not admire that the stadium's operating terms in essence represent a giveaway of taxpayer dollars to the extremely rich Browns owner Alfred Lerner.

Denver Broncos
Olandis Gary
The holes have started to disappear for Olandis Gary and the rest of the Broncos running backs.

Can anyone explain why Denver wasn't in the Drew Bledsoe derby? Brian Griese has good stats, but also persistent injuries and has struggled for more than a year. Imagine Bledsoe working with quarterback-loving Mike Shanahan and rifling passes through the thin troposphere at Please Don't Buy From Invesco Field. Bledsoe to Denver might have revived the team's old Elway feeling. Shanahan said he wanted Bledsoe but only if the QB could be obtained free, after the Patriots cut him. To TMQ that's like saying, I'll spend the night with Cindy Crawford ... but only if she calls first.

Instead of swapping its first pick for Bledsoe and the Patriots' second -- the likely deal -- the Broncos made a luxury selection of fragile sprinter WR Ashley Lelie, who's already sitting out practices complaining of hamstring discomfort. Track guys always have hamstring problems. If Lelie ever plays, he is likely to exhibit Willie Gault disease. Wilbur Marshall once objected when a reporter called Gault a receiver, snapping back, "Willie Gault is a sprinter, receivers go over the middle."

Meanwhile the Denver OL, which made stars of Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, has started downhill. Talent drain is clear, especially at LT. In offseason moves the Broncs effectively exchanged Trey Teague for Ephraim Salaam and Blake Brockermeyer at LT, which is rather like coming home from the car dealership boasting that you finally got rid of that Fiat, then, asked what you traded for, replying, "A Gremlin and a Corvair." (Actually the 7,000-pound Ford Expedition would make an excellent LT.)

Decline of the Denver running game also synchs with the league crackdown on illegal blocks. Through the 1990s, Broncs OLs were coached by line boss Alex Gibbs, now a team "consultant", to try to injure the knees of the defensive front. Broncos faithful protest that opponent injuries weren't much more common than in anybody else's game, but this is because the defenders were not cooperating with their attackers the way people do in kung-fu movies, but were sidestepping. The whole point of the tactic was to distract defenders by forcing them to sidestep to protect their knees. Now that the league has cracked down on this tactic -- flagging the Broncs often last year and fining OLs Dan Neil and Matt Lepsis for deliberate injury attempts -- Denver running backs suddenly look human again.

Houston Texans
In light of the last three expansion clubs, being Jax, Carolina and the Cleveland Browns (Release 2.0), the question about the Moo-Cows is whether they can follow the Jax and Carolina precedents, using a blank salary cap to leap to the postseason by the second year, or whether they will follow the Browns precedent and blow their sal-cap space on retreads and who-dats. TMQ has absolutely no idea which of the two fates await this new team.

Indianapolis Horsies
TMQ likes Tony Dungy, and thinks he got the short end of the stick in Tampa, where the lunatic Glazer brothers openly undercut Dungy before his final Bucs game, last year's Tampa-Philadelphia playoff tilt, by openly negotiating with Bill Parcells. Also, in an especially lunatic gesture, the Glazers refused to accompany the team to Philly. That contest, a playoff game, became the first game in NFL history to be lost by management.

Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy usually struggles in January ... and so do the Colts.

Although TMQ likes Dungy, Colts fans must be cautioned that he brings with him the same problem that plagued his predecessor, Jim Mora -- flameouts in January. Mora was an excellent regular-season coach, with a lifetime record of 125-106 or .541; Dungy is also an excellent regular-season coach, with a lifetime record of 54-42 or .563. But Mora was 0-6 lifetime in the playoffs, and Dungy is 2-4 lifetime once it's money time. Some harmonic force has drawn Dungy, who can't win in January, to the NFL's current exemplar of can't-win-in-January syndrome, the Horsies having honked both their postseason appearances with Peyton Manning.

As for the Indy defense, all you need to know about it is that during the offseason, Colts DBs Idrees Bashir and Nick Harper saw a car owned by one of them being stolen. They jumped into a second vehicle and gave chase but couldn't catch the thieves, who were later arrested by police. Indianapolis defenders can't catch anybody! Good thing the carjackers didn't run a deep fade on these gentlemen.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jax went into the offseason a record $30 million over the salary cap. Things were so bad the team paid Hardy Nickerson $750,000 just to get rid of him -- handing him a bonus check for this amount, owing to a contract detail, on the day they waived Nickerson to lighten the cap. Had it not been for the expansion draft, which offered teams a chance to get players' cap charges off the books, the Jaguars would have imploded. Indeed, some around the league are swearing under their breath that the expansion draft allowed Jax to escape the full consequences of several years of Enron-like sal-cap gimmicks. Even so, the Jaguars might be cover-your-eyes awful this year, owing to cap cuts.

Speaking of swearing, is there a worse sport in NFL coaching ranks than insult-spewing Tom Coughlin? He screams four-letter words at opponents during games. More than once last season, after losses Coughlin insulted the victors, saying words to the effect of, "There's no way they should have beaten us, we are a much better team." The football gods take a dim view of such rodomontade. Notre Dame should be glad that it wised up to this guy in time.

Kansas City Chiefs
Who would have believed the traditionally power-running, defense-oriented Chiefs would be fifth overall in passing and 23rd overall in defense? That's what happened in Kansas City last year. Man, it didn't take long for Dick Vermeil to make his presence felt. The Chiefs managed to finish 6-10 despite being outscored by just 24 points. Turnovers did them in, especially Trent Green leading the league in interceptions.

Fun factoid: Just before the draft the Chiefs in effect gave Derrick Alexander, whom they wanted to get rid of, a $100,000 bonus to agree to some cap-evading rewording of his contrast. The rewording pushed $3 million from the 2002 to the 2003 Kansas City cap account, and then Alexander was released. Pretty nice going-away present, but doesn't this sound awfully like what Enron was doing with Merrill Lynch?

Bonus fun factoid: at $3.50, Arrowhead Stadium offers the league's cheapest beers.

Miami Marine Mammals
Ricky Williams
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
Trades involving marquee players like Ricky Williams don't take place in-season.

In Ricky Williams, the Dolphins finally have the power back they have been dreaming of since Larry Csonka -- actually, since Norm Bulaich. But does the team have blockers for him? The great Miami OLs of the past are now historical items. Only Mark Dixon and Tim Ruddy are credible starters on the current Fish offensive front, and if you have a weak heart, you would perhaps rather not know the identities of the gentlemen competing for the LT spot.

Miami in recent seasons has played good defense by featuring top corners plus an undersized but fast front seven. The problem is that the undersized but fast front seven wears down as the pounding of the season adds up. The result is that during the last decade the Dolphins are 53-21 in September and October (the league's best record through that span) but go into an annual tailspin commencing Dec. 1, Miami in the last decade being 24-30 from that day on. Late-season defense fold-ups has culminated in the Dolphins being outscored an embarrassing 215-87 in the playoffs in the last five years, with an average 16-point margin of defeat.

There's little reason to think history will not repeat, with the Dolphins defensive front shrinking in 2002 to the smallest in memory. Five of the front seven (David Bowens, Morlon Greenwood, Derrick Rogers, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas) are undersized speed players who will be beat up and hurtin' by December.

Hmmmm, the above is a totally straight sports item. What's it doing in Tuesday Morning Quarterback?

New England Patriots
Absolutely, this team did the right thing by handing the reins to Tom Brady. He won the Super Bowl: end of discussion. Look what happened to the Ravens when they cast aside the QB who had just brought home a trophy! And while there was no QB controversy in the Pats' 2001 season, if Bledsoe stayed; one was sure to start this year whenever Brady has his first three-INT game, as inevitably he will. By year's end, once Brady's weaknesses are exposed, fans might be chanting for Bledsoe back -- remember, New England won the Super Bowl despite scoring just three offensive touchdowns in the playoffs. But making the job Brady's alone was the right move.

Tom Brady
The Pats were smart enough to bring back their Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

And what turned Bill Belichick from a lifetime losing coach (which he still is, at 56-61) to a ring-wearer? Significant offensive line improvement -- Mike Compton and Damien Woody were two of the best in the league last season -- and Antowain Smith. In this retread runner who played in 2001 for the veteran minimum, Belichick finally found the power back that his tactical thinking has always turned on.

Of all the remarkable achievements the P-Men ran up, most impressive to TMQ was that they won the Lombardi Trophy despite low-rated units. By yardage, New England finished 12th on offense and just 24th on defense. Click to the scoring column, however, and New England was sixth in putting up points and sixth in preventing them; turnovers and special teams play compensated for poor yardage performance to put the Pats over the top.

New Jersey Jets
It's 2002, do you know who's starting for the Jets? This franchise, which TMQ calls Jersey/B, has 10 new starters, including two new corners after exposing both of last year's starters to the expansion draft in the hopes that the Texans would take them and get them off the Jets cap. Three of the four Jets DB starters are new. The offensive line, which played well last year, has the Now Hiring sign out too, with the fine tackle Ryan Young gone to the Texans (supposedly exposed in the expansion draft as part of a deal by which Houston got Young if it promised to take the two mega-contract CBs off Jersey/B's hands) and Kerry Jenkins, a fine guard, departed via free agency. Vinny Testaverde looked swell last year in part because his line allowed an AFC-low 19 sacks. This year, the blocking might be ugly.

A barometer of the Jersey/B campaign will be how often free-agent find Sam Cowart plays. He has gone down with season-ending injuries in each of his last two NFL starts, and was injured a lot at Florida State too. When healthy, Cowart is awesome. During Cowart's four years at Buffalo, the Bills were 28-17 when he played and 4-17 when he sat injured. Aye carumba.

Fun factoid: along the new Jets front, DT Josh Evans has been suspended twice for drugs, DT Larry Webster suspended once, and DT Jason Ferguson tested positive in college. Who will get in trouble again first? When it happens, the newspaper headline should be, ONE TOKE OVER THE DEFENSIVE LINE.

Oakland Raiders
Last year, the Raiders, 22-25 after Dec. 1 in the past decade, surprised everyone by not collapsing down the stretch. Then it all came to naught at the Snow Ball. Yes, in common-sense terms it was a fumble, though the reversal was correct -- see last week's TMQ. But the Raiders were ultimately to blame for the loss. They got the ball back with a minute left in regulation and timeouts remaining and just knelt down, content to advance to an overtime in which they never had a possession. Contrast the Patriots' aggressive offense late in the Super Bowl when they might have knelt and gone to overtime, and one sees the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose.

Then guess what? The coach who made the decision to play not to lose at the Snow Bowl turns out to be worth two No. 1s and two No. 2s. Only in America!

Fun factoid: the Raiders are almost $50 million over next year's cap, the biggest cap superfluity in NFL annals. Fans must expect an offseason implosion; even Arthur Andersen couldn't falsify this.

Pittsburgh Steelers
And why wasn't this team hot for Bledsoe? The Steelers had the league's No. 1 defense in 2001, its No. 1 running game, decent receivers at last and the league's best offensive line. (Guard Alan Faneca was the TMQ Non-QB/Non-RB MVP last year.) The weak link is Kordell Stewart, who had a decent regular season, then honked the AFC Championship at home, as he had honked the championship game at home in 1998. Bledsoe could have been the final piece of the puzzle, the franchise QB who brought the Steelers their first post-1970s trophy. Instead, it's another season of holding your breath every time Kordell Stewart drops back.

Kordell Stewart
Kordell Stewart played well all season ... until the AFC Championship Game.

Best as TMQ can suss out, the league shrugged at Bledsoe on the theory of, What have you done for me lately? Bledsoe gets hurt and immediately Tom Brady leads the Pats to a ring, though this reflected New England's improvement overall -- TMQ doesn't remember Brady blocking or covering anyone. Also, Bledsoe was unimpressive in 1999 and 2000, but then so was everyone on the Patriots roster.

As for Stewart, psychologically Bill Cowher seems to have made a total commitment to him back when the politics of playing a black quarterback were keenly felt. But today, with Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair and Duante Culpepper being stars, and the African American passer Michael Vick having been No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, black QB symbolism has ended. What continues is Stewart, a guy who could have been a Pro Bowl WR, laboring as an average-at-best QB who is standing between the Steelers and One for the Thumb.

San Diego Chargers
Many touts, including some at ESPN, picked San Diego to cruise to the playoffs based on Doug Flutie. But monster athlete though Flutie is, the previous time he was a full-season starter, in 1999, Flutie faded and lost arm strength in the second half of the season. That's exactly what happened to the Bolts in 2001, Flutie having great stats early as San Diego jumped out 5-2, then for the rest of the year throwing more INTs than TDs as the team lost nine straight. Flutie is about to turn 40 and simply can't throw to the deep center. (It's not that he can't throw long -- he does -- it's that he can't throw to the deep center and safeties know it.)

This leaves the Bolts once again uncertain at QB -- will Drew Brees be the man? Since Stan Humphries suffered a career-ending injury in the ninth game of the 1997 season, Chargers quarterbacks have combined to throw 117 interceptions versus 64 touchdowns.

On the uniform front, TMQ passed through San Diego the other day and in a sports bar saw hanging the jerseys of Hadl and Mix and Alworth and others from Bolts lore, said attire of the gorgeous baby-blue designs the Chargers wore in the 1960s. These, TMQ thinks, were the prettiest duds any NFL team every donned. Why oh why don't the Bolts go back to this design? They wore the baby-blues for a year during the throwback craze -- if only the new Bills jerseys were throwbacks, then fans could yell, "throw them back!" -- then returned to their far less appealing modern colors. Bolts, what gives?

Tennessee Flaming Thumbtacks
Eddie George
Eddie George and the Titans were left high and dry in 2001.

A mere 18 months ago, the Titans looked loaded for bear. They had just finished with the best record in the league, had the NFL's top-rated defense, a power rushing game, a strong offensive line and a maturing Steve McNair. They were the Super Bowl favorites of the touts and, far more importantly, of TMQ. They met the Ravens at home in the divisional round and totally outplayed the eventual Super Bowl champs in the trenches, compiling a huge yardage edge. But they lost on two long, fluky return TDs. (Note that Baltimore and New England, the last two Super Bowl champs, both had three return TDs in the playoffs in their triumphant years.) Since that game began, the Flaming Thumbtacks have gone 7-10.

Ye gods, what went wrong? The offensive line broke down; first-ballot Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews had a gem career, but last season was being pushed backward by gentlemen you had never heard of before and will not hear of again. Eddie George started to wear out. And man, did the Titans make bad management moves.

In the 2001 offseason, Tennessee traded a No. 1 pick for the worse-than-useless Kevin Carter. This player glistened with media hype -- always a danger sign! -- but had just had such a bad year he wasn't even starting for the Rams. And he's another of those poltergeists with the incredibly scientifically advanced ability to project a negative energy field that makes players around him worse rather than better. Carter, freed by the Titans of all responsibilities against the run, assigned to get sacks and applause, proceeded to register two, count 'em two, sacks in 2001.

Not only did the Flaming Thumbtacks trade for Carter; worse, they awarded him a huge bonus. Insured of his payday, Carter had no motive to perform, and did not. The cap space expended meant the Titans had to let go Kenny Holmes, a decent DE, and Denard Walker, one of the league's best cover corners. (Walker should have attended the Pro Bowl rather than his Denver teammate Deltha O'Neal, who makes flashy plays but also gambles so much that he spends considerable time with a clear, unobstructed view of the name and number on the back of his man's jersey.) Thus in effect Tennessee traded Denard Walker, Kenny Holmes and a No. 1 draft choice for the me-first does-nothing worse-than-useless Kevin Carter. It's the kind of decision that can change a team's karma from good to bad, which is exactly what happened.

Running Items Department
Correction of the Year: The Aug. 14 edition of the New York Times contained this incredible correction box: A front-page article on Monday about the house in North Caldwell, N.J., used to represent the residence of the mobster Tony Soprano in the HBO television series "The Sopranos" misstated the given name of Big Pussy, a character killed by Tony. He was Salvatore Bonpensiero, not Vincent.

James Gandolfini
"The Sopranos" is a good show ... but the characters don't really exist, people.

The article also misstated the circumstances in which Tony decided to kill him. The decision was made after he awoke from a dream and later found incriminating evidence in his comrade's home, not during a meeting in Tony's basement.

The place where A.J., Tony's son, was caught smoking marijuana was misidentified. It was the garage, not the powder room.

The article referred imprecisely to an encounter in the living room between Carmela, Tony's wife, and the family priest. The two seemed on the point of kissing, but did not actually do so.

But Big Pussy was not "killed by Tony." Big Pussy is imaginary. There were never any "circumstances in which Tony decided to kill him." Tony can't kill anyone, he does not exist. Tony never had any dream or found incriminating evidence or met anyone in the basement or caught his son smoking grass. Tony is fictional. Here the straight-laced, precision-obsessed, oh-so-conscientious New York Times runs a detailed "correction" regarding events that are totally made-up.

OK, we know the media have ever-increasing difficulty distinguishing between actual events and things that are made-up. Worse, many news outlets show increasing lack of interest in this distinction. But how can you "correct" a statement about something that does not exist? The Times box is like running a correction that says, "James Bond drinks vodka martinis, not gin as was stated in yesterday's editions. The New York Times apologizes to Mr. Bond." Or a correction saying "Buffy never really loved Riley, she was just sleeping with him. The New York Times regrets mischaracterizing Miss Summers' feelings." (By the way, why do the imaginary people in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spend so much time meeting each other in dark alleys? Have you ever met anyone in a dark alley? Don't they have coffee shops or parking lots or streetcorners in Sunnydale?)

At least we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the doesn't-exist Carmela did not make out with the doesn't-exist priest; the Catholic Church has enough problems with the real version of this sort of thing. And boy, can Tuesday Morning Quarterback empathize with the statement, "The two seemed on the point of kissing, but did not actually do so." That pretty much sums up my entire dating career.

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Aren't there any coffee shops in Buffy's neighborhood?

Some readers will protest that the living room referred to in the Times correction actually does exist. The Sopranos' Hollywood stage-set house is a duplicate of a home in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and now you can inspect that house here. Soon Sopranos-brand architectural drawings and home furnishings will be for sale through the site, so that you can make your very own home look like that of a bigoted craven murderer and his dysfunctional sex-obsessed family. Surely millions of people will want their very own homes to resemble that of a bigoted craven murderer and his dysfunctional sex-obsessed family! The site also announces, "Coming Soon to the Soprano Home Design Website: Quality Sub-Contractors to Use for Your Construction Needs." Wait a minute. You'll be able to hire a contractor through the Sopranos website? Are you sure we're talking about granite kitchen counter tops here?

Need a Clue? Pirates Say, "Yo Ho Ho." TMQ has always loved the name of Yo Murphy, an itinerant WR who is currently hanging on to a roster spot in St. Louis. If only his parents had added the punctuation and christened him Yo! Murphy. But let's hope they didn't name his sister ...

Variety Calls It an Eddie Murphy Vehicle, But to TMQ It Looked Like an Escape Pod. Here is all you need to know about "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," in a single sentence: the Warner Brothers press release describes it as "a gangster comedy set on the Moon."

More Proof of the Decline of Western Civilization. ESPN broadcast the Houston Texans expansion draft.

Reader Animadversion. Got a comment about Tuesday Morning Quarterback, or witty observation? Start e-mailing 'em in, I quote readers in columns and will begin doing so soon. Humor or cleverness increase your chance of being quoted, and TMQ will be the sole judge of what constitutes "clever."

See you next Tuesday.

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is believed to be the first Brookings scholar ever to write a pro football column. You can buy his football book, the incredibly cleverly titled "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," here.


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