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Monday, December 8, 2003
Morning After: Running on empty

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

So it's December now, right, and everyone should know what that means. Essentially, it means that, if you want to enhance your playoff position, you had better be able to run the football on offense and stuff the run defensively. As the weekend again demonstrated, when the wind starts whipping around stadiums at 25-30 mph, the passing game gets to be a little like a helicopter in gusty weather.

Game ball
Portis
Portis
Clinton Portis, Broncos RB
There were five tailbacks who rushed for more than 150 yards each on Sunday, but it's hard not to cite Portis, who all but single-handedly kept the Broncos' playoffs hopes alive. Portis scored five times and, every time Kansas City attempted to mount so much as a mini-comeback, he made a huge play. Portis is a wonderful back, a guy who somehow slid to the second round of the 2002 draft, and there are a lot of teams kicking themselves now for not grabbing him earlier. At the top of the list should be Cleveland coach Butch Davis, who was familiar with Portis from having recruited him to the University of Miami, but who opted for the troubled William Green when he went for a franchise-type back last year.
Scout's take
Comments elicited from two NFC pro scouts:

  • Brees
    Brees
    "Someone explain to me why (San Diego coach Marty) Schottenheimer is going with Doug Flutie at quarterback when there is nothing to be gained by that. At least use the last few weeks to get a look at Drew Brees and further evaluate him. The fact they aren't playing Brees might indicate he's done and that they'll take Eli Manning the draft if they get a shot at him."

  • "I'm wondering now if, after investing a year in Quincy Carter, will Bill Parcells go for a veteran guy in the offseason? I mean, the directive down there was to develop their own guy, to not spend on a high-round quarterback or on a free agent, and to make it work with Carter or (Chad) Hutchinson. But Carter has flattened out now and Bill isn't going to live with that. Lord knows, there are going to be some veteran quarterbacks out in the market next spring."

  • "Teams absolutely missed the boat on (New England strong safety) Rodney Harrison in free agency. Everybody felt like he was used up, my team included, and he's probably going to the Pro Bowl now. He had about 15 tackles (actually 11) on Sunday, got a sack, forced a fumble. Maybe (Bill) Belichick does know more than the rest of us, huh? He certainly knew how to get something out of Harrison, who might be in the top five for defensive player of the year (honors)."

  • "I half-expected Bruce Smith, when he broke the sack record on Sunday, to take his helmet off, drop his shoulder pads, wave to the crowd, and fade into the sunset. The only reason he was playing this year was for the record. That's it, period, believe me. "

  • "The union feels like the league won't fight too hard to keep (University of Pittsburgh wide receiver) Larry Fitzgerald out of the '04 draft. He's in better shape, in that regard, than Maurice Clarett. On that one, the NFLPA will side with the league. Fitzgerald is a little faster than people think, not a burner, but is still a top 10 pick, in part because he's such a solid kid and hard worker."

  • "There are just some games when (New Orleans quarterback) Aaron Brooks looks like a dog and Sunday was one of them. He looked sloppy, fumbled four times, just seemed kind of out of it and not very interested."
  • Heard in the pressbox
    Wannstedt
    Wannstedt
    Among the various NFL coaches past and present contacted by Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson, at least through intermediaries, is Dave Wannstedt of the Dolphins. But the Cornhuskers boss can't afford to wait three more weeks to see if Wannstedt retains his current job. ... Look for the New York Giants to strictly adhere to the guidelines for interviewing minorities, once they fire Jim Fassel. One of their top candidates probably will be (Patriots defensive coordinator) Romeo Crennel. He'll interview really well. But the early favorite for the job is still (Tom) Coughlin. ... Most of the half-dozen players who got those threatening, racially-motivated letters recently didn't think much of them. At least one guy thought so little of it, he didn't even tell his agent, and they talk nearly every week. Then the FBI got hot on the trail, told these players to take the letters a bit more seriously, and guys are more concerned. ... There is a good chance that Ravens starting quarterback Kyle Boller will pick up the pace in rehab this week. But it looks like (coach) Brian Billick is going to stick with Anthony Wright for now, even if he wasn't nearly as sharp Sunday as he was a week ago. ... Look for Bengals defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, who interviewed for the vacancy at the University of Arizona but didn't get it, to pursue the opening at the University of Cincinnati. ... The Bengals aren't getting the kind of energy they expected out of (defensive end) Justin Smith. On the other hand, they got a good player in Rogers Beckett, picking him up on waivers when he was whacked by San Diego in the summer. They'd like to extend his contract and maybe that of their other safety, Mark Roman, as well. ... Word is that the Jaguars will lay out big money to get a top-flight cornerback in free agency. It looks like they'll let their own top cornerback, Fernando Bryant, test the market.

    Translation: It isn't going anywhere. It isn't just a fluke that there were nine 100-yard rushing performances on Sunday, and all nine teams that had a runner go over the century mark won their respective contests. No back went further over the 100-yard mark than Clinton Portis of Denver, who put up 218 big ones, not to mention five touchdowns runs, against Kansas City.

    OK, we'll give Mike Shanahan, the onetime Teflon Coach who is finally catching heat even from some of the Mile High Media Club that has kissed up to him for so many years, credit for this much: The guy could be rendered temporarily sightless at draft time -- some would suggest that he has been, given some of his recent high-round choices, but more on that later -- but he would still unearth a tailback after the first round. See: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Portis. Put a stud cornerback in front of Shanahan, even Deion Sanders in his prime, and Shanahan mightn't choose him. But for big-time runners, hey, Shanny has some kind of tailback divining rod.

    Anyway, this brings us around to Portis, and how he shredded the Chiefs rush defense on Sunday afternoon. Those noises you heard emanating from Invesco Field were: (a) the Broncos exhaling now that they have resuscitated their season, and (b) the Kansas City defense wheezing. For much of the season, the Chiefs have been the NFL's premier team, an outfit seemingly destined to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. But the Chiefs haven't stopped the run well most of the year and, while their deficiencies in that area were overshadowed by the fact coordinator Greg Robinson kept coming up with ways to keep opponents out of the end zone, the fact is Kansas City ranks 27th versus the run. And the Chiefs have allowed an average of 4.9 yards per carry, the second most generous mark in the league.

    Sooner or later, when you can't catch up to a standout runner, the shortcoming catches up to you. That isn't to say the Chiefs won't rectify the situation. Then again, they haven't all year, have they? Kansas City fans, among the most loyal and hearty in the NFL, have seen this act before. They're hoping this isn't a case of déjà vu all over again.

    Trent Green threw for 397 yards on Sunday and had zero interceptions. He spread the ball around as well as a quarterback can, including 11 completions to Dante Hall, who is seeing a lot more time as the No. 3 wide receiver now. The Chiefs rang up a ton of yards, and scored 27 points, and still lost by 18. Uh, not good, folks.

    It would be disastrous for the Chiefs to suffer the kind of early playoff exit they have experienced in the past. It probably won't happen, because this is a quality team, for sure. But it is has one Achilles' heel and, for the Chiefs to put their best playoff foot forward, they've got to figure out a way to stop the big-time foot soldiers of the teams they will face.

    Welcome back Michael
    Anyone who stayed up late enough Sunday to watch the conclusion of Michael Vick's initial start of the season saw a graphic representation of what the Atlanta Falcons, and NFL fans everywhere, missed this season.

    They also saw that all those wacky alarmists who suggested Vick should sit out the entire campaign, many of them Southern-fried columnists who try too hard sometimes to stir the pot, are knuckleheads. Vick proved to be precisely what Vick is, a wondrous athletic talent, still yet a work in progress when it comes to playing the quarterback position at the NFL level. That last reality figures to be overshadowed by all the knee-jerks reactions and fawning that will be a part of Monday post-mortems. Vick is a singular talent but needs every snap he can get, yeah, even those he will get under duress in the final four games of the season. Go back, watch the tape, count the number of balls he threw Sunday night to guys in the wrong jerseys.

    There is only one Vick but, for a second, think about how incredible he will be once he settles down in the pocket and learns to deliver the ball cleanly. Uh, does the term "unstoppable" leap to mind, people?

    Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers seem intent on backing into the division title, don't they? You can almost hear the beeping sound, one that accompanies a truck in reverse, emanating from the Panthers franchise.

    Ravenous on defense
    If you are Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, and you have one of the best teams in the NFL, this proposition ought to scare the snot out of you: Finishing the season as a wild card team, with a better record than projected AFC North winner Baltimore, and having to face the Ravens on the road in the first round of the playoffs. After seeing Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, that can't be a pleasant specter at all.

    The Ravens, even with their relatively limited offense, are capable of lining up with just about anyone and trading roundhouse rights. Especially the way their defense, and in particular an emerging secondary, is playing right now. The backside unit is beginning to suffocate people and, with its ability to blanket across the field, provides the Baltimore front seven more time to get to the quarterback. Cornerback Chris McAlister and strong safety Ed Reed, both of whom should earn Pro Bowl berths, are the stars.

    But everyone in the secondary is playing well and that was obvious against a Cincinnati passing game that had been very potent of late. Reed allows defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to be fairly creative, although in a subtle way, because of his versatility. And the Ravens, with guys like Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs rushing from the edge, can compress the pocket.

    It is sacrilegious to say so, but teams can run more often inside now against Ray Lewis, although he still chases the ball as well as anyone. Lewis remains the spiritual leader of the Baltimore defense, but he's got plenty of help. Kudos to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and personnel chief Phil Savage. Of the team's 22 starters on Sunday, 18 were either drafted by the Ravens or originally signed as college free agents.

    Colts kick Titans
    Here's another concern for Fisher: That finesse team from Indianapolis, the one your players felt would run and hide when they were smacked in the mouth a few times, hasn't blinked in two matchups with your guys.

    The Indianapolis defense wasn't nearly as dominant on Sunday as it was in the first meeting of the season, but it made just enough plays to hold on. With plenty of opportunities to choke, the Colts kept breathing calmly, and the Titans were the ones suffering an asthma attack.

    The Colts had the ball for 34 straight snaps at one point in the game, an incredible statistic because of Tennessee turnovers. Not so long ago, the Titans defense would have figured out a way to get the ball back, but not this time. This Indianapolis team has more moxie than its most recent predecessors.

    Pats just keep winning
    Smith
    Smith
    Speaking of moxie, the New England Patriots continue to have it in large doses, and that was obvious again Sunday. Bill Belichick's team just does whatever it must to win. And the head coach keeps pushing the right buttons.

    A week ago, tailback Antowain Smith was banished to the inactive list and didn't even dress for the game against the Colts. This week, he not only started but also provided some boost by rushing for 60 yards.

    And, please, no rhetoric yet about how the Dolphins took the first step toward another nosedive. Playing out of their element, literally, coach Dave Wannstedt's team hung tough in the snow. Now, should the Dolphins lose next Monday night at home to red-hot Philadelphia, that will be another story. In the snowy climes of Gillette Stadium, the Dolphins actually demonstrated some fortitude. This was not one of their typical disappearing acts. Not yet, at least, folks.

    Crisis mode in Dallas?
    Parcells
    Bill Parcells
    How about that quote from The Tuna, seemingly perplexed at the degree of ordinary he inherited, after the Dallas Cowboys' loss on Sunday afternoon.

    Bill Parcells, one of the coaches for whom we have unbridled respect, noted that he didn't expect to be facing a "full-blown crisis" in his first season with the club. Say what? This was a team that set a new standard for negative symmetry, winning just five games in each of the previous three seasons. So, what, Parcells thought he was taking over the Steelers of the '70s?

    There is a reason Dallas won a total of 15 games in three seasons, and all the blame cannot be heaped on Parcells' predecessor, Dave Campo. Most observers felt the Cowboys were playing over their heads, the product of great coaching and preparation, when they started the year 5-1. That they have dropped four of the past seven outings is probably a far more accurate indicator of the Cowboys' comparative talent level. No franchise is supposed to be satisfied merely getting to the playoffs. But let's be honest here. Did anyone, even Parcells or owner Jerry Jones, believe the Cowboys were headed to the postseason when they gathered this team in San Antonio five months ago? C'mon, guys, be honest.

    But what happens when a team is so surprising at the outset of a season is that everything -- the expectations, the aspirations, the evaluations -- are raised. Hold a gun to the head of some Dallas officials and they would tell you that, back in July, they would have killed for eight victories. Well, they've got eight, and are still, despite their recent slide, in the thick of the wild-card hunt.

    A "full-blown crisis?" Hey, the last three season was a crisis every day. What is a crisis for Parcells is that quarterback Quincy Carter has now thrown 13 interceptions in the last seven games. And that the Cowboys' big three wide receivers -- Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn and Antonio Bryant -- totaled zero catches on Sunday.

    Punts
    Tomlinson
    LaDainian Tomlinson
  • LaDainian Tomlinson demonstrated on Sunday that he is a more complete back than he usually gets credit for being. The Chargers star rushed for just 88 yards in a win over Detroit, but he had 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns on four catches. He had just one touchdown catch entering the game, but Tomlinson has good hands, as indicated by his 79 catches in 2002. He now has 75 receptions and a career-high 556 yards in '03. He isn't Marshall Faulk or Priest Holmes catching the ball but, for a guy who entered the NFL with suspect hands, he is a very good receiver.

  • The Seattle Seahawks are now 1-5 on the road this year and, for whatever reason, their offense just sputters away from home. That doesn't bode well for next week's big division showdown at St. Louis.

  • The crowd of 43,363 at Alltel Stadium on Sunday was the smallest in the nine-year history of the Jacksonville franchise. Too bad since the Jags are actually playing pretty good ball right now. The defensive line in particular has been terrific of late.

  • A pretty interesting passage in the wire story about Tampa Bay's victory over New Orleans, a game in which the Bucs defense stopped the streak of Saints tailback Deuce McAllister, who had rushed for 100 yards in nine straight games. It noted that Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, out most of the second half with a foot sprain, taunted McAllister "after every time he stopped him." Curious, in that Sapp, who did have his second touchdown catch of the season, was credited with zero tackles on the game play-by-play.

  • On the flip side, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice had three sacks, to give him a league-best 15 for the year.

  • Colts place-kicker Mike Vanderjagt has now converted 37 straight field goals, just three shy of the NFL record held by Gary Anderson.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.