Friday, July 22, 2005
Titans have challenge of balancing backs' loads
By Len Pasquarelli
An NFL adage suggests that when a coach insists he has two starting-caliber quarterbacks, it probably means he has none.
That doesn't necessarily hold true for running backs. And actually, as the Tennessee Titans might soon discover after having traded for former Buffalo Bills starter Travis Henry earlier this week, having two proven starters at tailback might mean that you've got one too many.
No doubt, the addition of Henry, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who moved to Tennessee for a reasonable sticker price of just a third-round choice in the 2006 NFL draft, was a terrific one by Titans general manager Floyd Reese. But now, with Henry's joining third-year back Chris Brown on the tailback depth chart, the pressure shifts a bit to coach Jeff Fisher and first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow as they try to devise a plan to get each of the young runners a sufficient amount of carries.
It's called division of labor and, if not executed with care and pragmatism, it can divide locker room. That's not to suggest that Titans officials should not have made the move for Henry, a physical inside runner, especially given Brown's injury history. But for all the potential rewards, it should be noted that the deal certainly is not risk free.
Henry forced his way out of Buffalo, after losing his starting job to Willis McGahee in 2004, because he wasn't inclined to play second fiddle. But history has demonstrated that it's difficult in the NFL to keep one back happy while the other gets most of the carries. So how long will Henry, who despite signing a four-year contract extension isn't going to earn a dime more in Nashville in '05 than he was scheduled to make in Buffalo, bite his tongue if he is logging, say, only six carries a game? Or will Brown, who has missed five games in each of his first two seasons, chafe if Henry knocks him from his No. 1 perch on the depth chart?
For now, at least, everyone involved is saying all the right things. But the letters "PC" can be shorthand for "per carry" as well as "politically correct." And the initial feel-good atmosphere surrounding a trade that was well received by Titans fans, who recall Henry's tough style when he starred at the University of Tennessee, might have a short shelf life if either back feels slighted.
Let either Brown or Henry sit idle too long and the happy buzz of this week could turn into a heap of beefing about lack of playing time. There certainly have been other cases in which a planned coexistence became no existence for the backs involved.
Truth be told, time-sharing is a concept that works exceedingly better with Caribbean condominiums than it does NFL backfields. Rhetoric is cheap until lack of rushing yards start costing a player money and prestige -- and then the ante usually gets raised. So Fisher and Chow are going to have to come up with a way of juggling two talented tailbacks that keeps each of them not only motivated but mute.
This week, Fisher noted that he "wouldn't be surprised" if Brown and Henry got "about 200 carries each." It's a good thing Fisher used the disclaimer about, because two backs on the same team logging 200 attempts apiece is a feat rarely accomplished. Since 1990, in fact, it has occurred only three times. In '90, Barry Word had 204 carries and Christian Okoye had 245 for the Kansas City Chiefs. Warrick Dunn carried the ball 245 times and Mike Alstott 215 for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 1998. And in 2000, Ron Dayne had 228 attempts and Tiki Barber registered 213 rushes for the New York Giants.
Recent league history has demonstrated that the most successful teams have one feature tailback, and a dependable No. 2 guy who gets maybe six to eight "touches" per game, tops. In 2004, for instance, the top 10 rushers in the NFL averaged 330.3 attempts. Their backups averaged 58.9 carries. That is, it seems, a proven and productive workload quota.
In his debut NFL season following a brilliant career in the college ranks, Chow already is under considerable pressure, and he'll soon be under the microscope as well. Add the concern that sticking with the hot back in a game could make the other guy hot under the collar, and the heat on Chow is increased significantly. It is, for sure, a dicey dilemma that confronts the Tennessee offensive staff.
Landing the feisty Henry was difficult enough, with the Bills holding firm in their quest for a third-round choice, and with other suitors providing Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe plenty of leverage. But now that the Titans have Henry, in tandem with Brown, the hard part really begins. The Titans probably can't play both backs together, since neither is a skilled blocker, so a method for divvying up carries must be carefully plotted.
What looks great on paper now has to be put into application. And the likelihood is that accommodating both these talented backs won't be nearly as easy a task as it seems. Known for his offensive sleight of hand, Chow is going to have to find a way to pull a lot of carries out of the hat for his two backs.
Around the league
|2004 SEASON STATISTICS|
• By July 22, 2004, when the Tip Sheet was filed, there were only three first-round draft choices with contract agreements: linebacker Jason Babin of Houston, New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork and wide receiver Michael Clayton of Tampa Bay. So it's not as if this year's pace, with zero first-rounders under contract Friday morning, is that far behind, right?
What is most disturbing about the lack of deals for 2005, though, is the negotiating inertia that exists right now. Only about half the teams have even initiated substantive bargaining with first-round choices. It's the old gun-to-the-head deadline philosophy taken to new heights, it seems, and it's almost as if some franchises won't mind if their first-rounders miss a few days, as long as the clubs get the contract parameters they want. Of course, the agents aren't exactly blameless in this either, with most paralyzed by the fear of doing an early deal before the slotting becomes clearer in the round.
From people we've spoken to on both sides of the negotiating table, it appears that teams are willing to increase contracts by about 6 to 8 percent over a year ago, but that players and agents are holding out for bumps of at least 10 percent. Or at least deals that, on paper, appear to be 10 percent hikes over the 2004 levels.
As we've pointed out in this space several times in recent months, the lack of a collective bargaining agreement extension, and the fact that teams can amortize signing bonuses throughout only five seasons, is a hurdle that is forcing everyone to be a tad more creative in 2005. Still, this isn't rocket science and, as teams and agents certainly have demonstrated in the past, there are myriad ways to skin the salary-cap cat. So, hey, time to start skinning, guys.
It doesn't make sense to become an alarmist when it comes to the first-round signings because, eventually, every deal gets done and every prospect gets to camp. But this year's pace is glacier-like, and it's going to take some contracts getting done in the next few days to break the ice. Tom Condon, the agent for top overall choice Alex Smith, will travel to the Bay Area this weekend to huddle with San Francisco officials in an effort to close the deal for the former Utah quarterback. Our money on which of the first-rounders lands the initial deal, though, is on wide receiver Roddy White of Atlanta or cornerback Fabian Washington of Oakland.
• The first round of the draft isn't the only negotiating category that is moving at a snail's pace. It's been a week since the league moratorium against signing franchise players lapsed, and there is very little movement in that area. League rules for franchise players essentially stipulate there can be no negotiations between mid-March and July 15. Teams were hoping that, in some instances, the four-month lull would have blunted the acrimony that often accompanies the franchise marker.
For now, at least, that hasn't been the case. There are three franchise players -- Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander, Philadelphia defensive tackle Corey Simon and New York Jets defensive end John Abraham -- who have refused to sign the one-year qualifying offer that comes with the designation. There is also one transition player, Green Bay Packers tight end Bubba Franks, who has not signed the qualifying offer.
Had those players signed the one-year tender before mid-March, they would now be able to negotiate long-term deals. Instead, they are starting from square one in the bargaining process. Any player who signs a long-term contract before first agreeing to the one-year qualifying offer carries the franchise tag for the length of the longer deal.
Of the nine other veterans tagged as franchise players, only two, Cincinnati Bengals running back Rudi Johnson and St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Orlando Pace, signed long-term contracts in March. The remaining seven -- quarterback Drew Brees of San Diego, Indianapolis tailback Edgerrin James, New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard, New England kicker Adam Vinatieri, cornerback Charles Woodson of Oakland, Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius and San Francisco linebacker Julian Peterson -- signed their one-year qualifying offers. It remains to be seen whether those players will convert the one-year deals into long-term contracts.
• Take this one to the bank: Despite his suggestion during a Thursday television appearance that he might like to play in Atlanta, if the Philadelphia Eagles would grant agent Drew Rosenhaus permission to seek a trade, there is zero chance of Terrell Owens being in a Falcons uniform. For one night, it was another dose of T.O. unleashed and, as usual, it was overplayed, especially in the Atlanta market. But Atlanta officials have been privately adamant that they would not take Owens, even if the Eagles gave him away and he agreed to play for free. Good sound bite, but no chance of occurring.
• Maybe, just maybe, currently unemployed cornerback Ty Law really will be ready to begin seriously auditioning for potential suitors in the next week or two, as he recently indicated. During a Wednesday trip to Miami for an ESPN.com feature story on Tim Couch, we met Lisa Kearns of SportFit Rehab and Training, the physical therapist and exercise physiologist who has been working with the former Cleveland quarterback, and who is also preparing Law for the 2005 season.
Kearns has worked with Law twice previously, both times on shoulder rehabilitations, has come to know him well in the last five years. She is confident the former New England star and four-time Pro Bowl performer can come back. "He's just about there," said Kearns. "He's able to make hard cuts now and we've just got to turn that up some. But I think he looks just great."
That sentiment was essentially echoed by Couch, who recently threw to Law during one of his own rehabilitation sessions. "I don't want to place a percentage on where I feel like he is," said Couch, who figures to begin working out for interested teams next month. "That wouldn't be fair to him. But I know that he looked good and he moved well. [It's] just my opinion, but I think he'll be a big-time player again."
Those endorsements aside, Law still has to prove to interested teams that he can still approximate the greatness he exhibited in the first 10 seasons of his career. There have been reports that teams have offered Law deals totaling between $30 million and $44 million. If that's the case, his agents, Carl Poston and Kevin Poston, had better read the fine print (which, remember, they did not do with the contract they negotiated for Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington), because it will be surprising if the deal isn't severely backloaded.
The Poston brothers have been whispering to people that the Chiefs are among the clubs ardently chasing their client, but team president Carl Peterson told the Kansas City Star this week that he has not made a contract offer and won't float numbers until he sees Law work out. "If Ty Law, once he gets well, has an interest in the Chiefs for a contract that makes sense to us, then I'll be happy to talk with him," said Peterson. "But right now, my understanding is he's looking for a big contract, but he's not even physically well yet."
• As for Couch, he recently settled the injury grievance that he filed against the Green Bay Packers last summer, an action taken because he felt the club released him while he had a serious arm problem. The two sides settled the case, just days before it was to go to arbitration, with Couch receiving about $100,000. Couch had received a signing bonus of $625,000 as part of the one-year, $1.25 million deal that would have made him the backup and heir apparent to Brett Favre. So without ever having thrown a pass for the Packers in a regular-season contest, Couch earned roughly $725,000.
More important than the money -- after all, Couch banked more than $33 million in salary and bonuses during five seasons in Cleveland, and his financial future is secure -- is that ESPN.com confirmed the first overall choice in the 1999 draft also got credit for an accrued season in the NFL pension plan as a part of the settlement. There are no immediate practical implications to that, since the minimum base salary (which is what some teams might attempt to offer Couch if he signs a contract this year) is the same for five- and six-year veterans -- $540,000. But it does add a year to Couch's official NFL tenure, and it likely increased his retirement benefits.
Because of the settlement, Green Bay got roughly $215,000 rebated into its salary cap for 2005. At least four franchises are closely monitoring Couch's rehabilitation. Seattle, which has no proven backup to Matt Hasselbeck, is believed to be one of them.
• San Diego general manager A.J. Smith is a smart guy and the renovation that he has enacted with the Chargers is admirable. But one has to wonder why, in the middle of what figures to be an acrimonious negotiation with first-round defensive end Shawne Merriman, the Chargers' front office boss dredged up last year's spitting match with Jimmy Sexton, the agent for 2004 first-round quarterback Philip Rivers.
In discussing the soon-to-be messy bargaining on the Merriman deal, Smith told the San Diego Union Tribune: "He will be given a good contract by the Chargers and, if he rejects it and misses the first day of camp, it's only going to get worse. They don't have leverage -- not with this organization. Call Jimmy Sexton and ask him and you'll find out. He played games, and everything blew up in his face. He got the double whammy."
The "double whammy" term is Smith's take that Rivers suffered financially by holding out and that he lost his opportunity to win the starting job. But the truth is, Rivers still landed a contract that was regarded as the second-best in the first round, after that of Eli Manning, the top overall selection. And despite having Rivers miss most of camp, Marty Schottenheimer still waited until late in the preseason to give Drew Brees the starting job. In fact, going into the third game of the season, the Chargers coaching staff was considering a switch at quarterback, with Brees perilously close to being replaced.
Smith is feeling his oats and, given the job he's done after succeeding the late John Butler, rightly so. But he may have erred in jabbing Sexton publicly and in such an uncalled-for manner. At some point down the road, he's going to have to deal with Sexton either on a trade of Rivers or a contract extension and his words won't be easily dismissed.
• Now we know why Cincinnati Bengals officials have adopted such a wait-and-see attitude in regard to the fat contract extension being sought by right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, who has two years remaining on his current deal. Turns out Anderson, one of my favorite players, didn't just have your garden variety offseason arthroscopic knee surgery to repair torn cartilage. He had so-called "microfracture" surgery on his right knee.
So what's the big deal? Well, though the success rate of the "microfracture" procedure has increased substantially the past few years, results remain somewhat spotty. Anderson, 30, is entering his 10th season with the Bengals, did not work on the field at all in preseason, and there are suspicions he will not be cleared to practice at the outset of training camp.
A real warrior, and a guy who gutted it through much of last season on the knee when he really had a legitimate excuse to just shut things down early, Anderson has never quite garnered the recognition he deserves. That's, in part, because he played largely on bad Bengals teams. Now that Cincinnati seems poised for better things, here's hoping Anderson is around long enough to reap the rewards of his perseverance. Team officials feel that he will be, and that Anderson's streak of 80 consecutive regular-season starts will be extended, but they are going to remain wary until they see him back out on the field again.
• Green Bay invested a third-round draft choice and a $583,625 signing bonus in punter B.J. Sander in 2004 and the former Ohio State star made zero appearances in his rookie campaign. So uneven was Sander's performance early in camp that the Packers signed veteran Bryan Barker in late August and he then punted in all 16 games.
The Packers dispatched Sander to the NFL Europe League this spring and, playing for Hamburg, he had a very nice season. Sander averaged 40.0 yards gross and a league-best 36.6 yards net, had 12 kicks inside the 20-yard line and just one touchback, and limited opponents to a measly 5.8 yards per return. So it's not surprising that Packer coaches will give Sander a chance to win the job he squandered last summer.
It's also not surprising that the Packers have kept in touch with the venerable Sean Landeta, a 20-year veteran, just in case Sander can't cut it for a second straight summer. Landeta is 43 and, in 12 games with St. Louis in 2004, had an anemic net average of 32.5 yards, which eventually earned him his release. But as astute beat writer Bob McGinn pointed out, Landeta's 37.1-yard net for the Packers in 1998 is the team's best effort in 25 years. McGinn also noted one longtime drawback with Landeta -- in 20 seasons, he has never served as the full-time holder on place kicks. Still, the Packers brass has suggested to Landeta that he keep his leg in shape, in the event Sander falters again.
• It's a pretty good bet that the people running the Chicago Bears are not numerologists. If they were, though, the club would have ample reason to be optimistic about the future of top draft choice Cedric Benson, the University of Texas tailback selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft. Prior to grabbing Benson, the Bears had picked in the No. 4 slot in the first round four times in franchise history. The picks: quarterback Johnny Lujack (1946), running backs Gale Sayers (1965) and Walter Payton (1975), and defensive tackle Dan Hampton (1979). All four earned All-Pro honors during their NFL careers. Sayers, Payton and Hampton are all in the Hall of Fame.
|2004 SEASON STATISTICS|
• Punts: Despite rumors that Dallas was close to a deal with defensive end Marcus Spears, the latter of the Cowboys' two selections in the first round, the two sides, as of Friday morning, had not engaged in substantive discussions. Dallas officials aren't expected to commence hard negotiations with Spears or their earlier first-round pick, linebacker Demarcus Ware, until early next week.
The Washington Redskins have given veteran linebacker Mike Barrow, who didn't play a single down in 2004 because of an injury, permission to seek a trade. Fat chance anyone is going to surrender anything for Barrow, 35, who will be released if he doesn't restructure his contract.
Some silly comments from Redskins' officials this week, contending that, if they don't release wide receiver Rod Gardner before camp starts, they still don't want him at practice. The guy is under contract and, as such, the Redskins can't deprive him the right to earn a living. Excusing him from offseason workouts is one thing. Trying to keep him out of camp, where he has the contractual right to participate, is another. Conclusion: Gardner will be released before the team reports, in part because Washington needs the cap savings it will earn to sign its pair of first-rounders, and about four teams will pursue him as a free agent.
The Broncos, who are overstocked with defensive linemen, are shopping fourth-year tackle Dorsett Davis in trade talks. A third-round choice in the '02 draft, Davis is a talented young player at a position that is difficult to fill, but injuries have limited him to only 14 appearances in three years. He's missed two full seasons, the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, with injuries.
Former Seattle first-round wide receiver Koren Robinson worsened his lot Thursday by allegedly violating a court order to abstain from alcohol. Robinson was released by the Seahawks after a troubled tenure, and multiple DUI arrests, and, according to police, showed up this week to serve a one-day jail sentence, but with alcohol on his breath.
• The last word: "At the end of the day, I don't have to worry about what people think of me, whether they hate me or not. People hated on Jesus. They threw stones at him and tried to kill him, so how can I complain or worry about what people think?" -- Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, on how people might react to his potential camp holdout.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .