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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Updated: September 1, 5:07 PM ET
Welcome to the AFC Preview

By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Touchdowns are pretty good stuff in football; players who produce touchdowns would seem to have value. Yet of the top 10 active NFL touchdown producers, six (Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Joey Galloway, Tony Gonzalez and Torry Holt) were waived or traded in the offseason, while a seventh (LaDainian Tomlinson) was told to take a pay cut or hit the road. Only three of the top 10 active touchdown producers (Randy Moss, Isaac Bruce and Clinton Portis) were asked back without reservation by their teams.

Yardage is pretty good stuff in football; players who produce yards would seem to have value. Yet of the top 10 active NFL yardage leaders, in the offseason seven (James, Harrison, Owens, Holt, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor and Ahman Green) were shown the door while an eighth (Tomlinson) stayed after downward renegotiation. Only two of the top 10 active yardage producers, Moss and Bruce, were asked back without reservation by their teams. Same with top-10 active rushers, receivers, interceptors -- in the offseason, more than half in each category were handed cab fare to the airport. Four of the top five active sack producers were waived: Jason Taylor, Kevin Carter, Willie McGinest and La'Roi Glover. And Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan have more career wins than any active NFL coach, yet neither wears a headset, while Dick Jauron (55-77 career), Marvin Lewis (46-50) and Gary Kubiak (22-26) are employed as NFL head coaches, along with seven gents (Jim Caldwell, Todd Haley, Josh McDaniels, Raheem Morris, Rex Ryan, Jim Schwartz and Steve Spagnuolo) who have combined for zero career NFL head coaching wins.

Of course, aging athletes often lose their ability to gain yards and score points -- though something tells me several mentioned in the above paragraphs will end up with more productive 2009 seasons than the younger players who got their roster slots. Presumably, aging coaches do not lose the ability to draw up plays or stage halftime tirades, so fade-out should matter less to coaching than performing. Yet with the prominent exception of Brett Favre, the NFL seems increasingly eager to toss aside highly productive stars and coaches, handing their positions to people you've never heard of. Could this be economic? In almost every case, the player or coach hired to replace an aging on-field or sideline star is paid less. NFL owners and general managers may increasingly be thinking, "Why pay for big names when we can drag some guy in off the street and no one will know the difference?" If this is what NFL owners and general managers are thinking, it's a slippery slope. As TMQ reminds, there is no law of nature that mandates the NFL must remain super-popular. Any sense that corners are being cut would be terrible for the sport.

Twitter
If Shakespeare had Twittered: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace, and -- sorry, character limit."

In news of mega-astonishing historical import to the entire sweep of human existence -- this is how the mainstream media seem to treat Twitter, Facebook and MySpace -- Tuesday Morning Quarterback is entering the Twitter Age. You can sign up to follow TMQESPN on Twitter and receive an early peak at my upcoming throwback column logo. I plan to use Twitter strictly to let readers know when the column posts. As soon as a new TMQ is up on Tuesdays, I'll send out a tweet. I don't plan to clog your laptop or cell phone with running commentary or announcements that I have gotten a haircut. So if you follow TMQESPN, expect one tweet per week, when the column posts. If I did tweet during games, here's what it would sound like:

• OMG, Bolts are punting from the Boyz' 35!!

• Am getting tuna sandwich and a microbrew.

• Did you see that shot of Dan Snyder's owner's box? His guest is Dr. Evil!

• Panthers are punting from the Broncos' 37!!!!!!!!!!!

• Took me 6 minutes, 24 seconds to make the sandwich.

• Why do the networks project advertiser logos over the cheerleaders' most aesthetically appealing features?

• Wow, Michael Vick sure is playing better than expected at defensive tackle.

• Networks + MSM = conspiracy to prevent cheerleader empowerment.

• JSYK, thot ab ROFL ab Lions. K?

• Bills have first-and-goal on Patriots' 1, lined up shotgun, incompletion.

• Bills have second-and-goal on Patriots' 1, lined up shotgun, incompletion.

• Seriously!!!!!!! LOL!!!!!!!!! RQF!!!!!!!!!!!! YTW!!!!!!!!!!

• Putting new roll of paper towels in the holder.

• Bills have third-and-goal on Patriots' 1, lined up shotgun, incompletion.

• JaMarcus Russell just came out of the Raiders game, some guy wearing fake tinfoil spikes has gone in at quarterback.

• Barometric pressure rising slightly.

• If a tree falls in the forest and no one tweets about that ...

• Bills have fourth-and-goal on Patriots' 1 and punted.

• Can't believe this, I just realized the meaning of life! There is a grand concept that can bring world peace and universal happiness to all people. The meaning of life is {{BALANCE DELETED BY SYSTEM ADMIN, EXCEEDS TWITTER CHARACTER MAXIMUM}}.

In political news, what huge obstacle to a successful Barack Obama presidency is about to emerge? See below. First, my AFC Preview.

Baltimore: In 2008, Baltimore had a great season despite a rookie Division I-AA quarterback and a head coach who had never been a head coach at any level. Maybe both will suffer a sophomore slump, but the more likely outcome would seem to be a monster 2009 for the Nevermores. Everyone in the NFL plays a physical style, but a distinction does exist between standard-physical and extreme-physical. Baltimore uses the latter approach. The proof is in the quarters. In the first and third quarters in 2008, when both teams were relatively fresh, the Ravens outscored opponents 155-123. In the second and fourth quarters, when both teams had been hammering each other awhile, the Ravens outscored opponents 230-118. Extreme-physical teams tend to dominate the second and fourth quarters, which is exactly how 2008 played out for Baltimore. To defeat an extreme-physical team, you must score early, neutralizing the team's ability to pound away and break your spirit. This is how Pittsburgh beat the Ravens in the AFC championship -- the Steelers got ahead 13-0, and Baltimore began to play tight rather than pound. Want to defeat the Ravens in 2009? Bring it in the first quarter.

During the 2008 regular season, Baltimore ran numerous trick plays, including snaps with two quarterbacks on the field; during the playoffs, the Ravens went vanilla, and offensive production stalled. Baltimore needs to loosen up its play calling in 2009, especially on first down -- the Ravens were super-predictable on first down in 2008, rushing 69 percent of the time. On the defensive side, what, exactly, is there to criticize? Maybe Baltimore schemes will become a little less nutty in 2009 with former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan departing for the Jets. There was more than one defensive snap in 2008 when 340-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata dropped into coverage while 185-pound safety Jim Leonhard (also now with Jersey/B) rushed the passer. As usual, the Baltimore offseason was characterized by smart personnel moves and seemingly sound drafting. The only puzzling decision was letting center Jason Brown -- an undrafted TMQ favorite -- go in favor of bringing in Matt Birk, who's on the downhill side of his career. Here, check out the normally scantily clad Ravens cheerleaders and cheer-studs in heavy parkas, visiting soldiers in Greenland.

Buffalo: Fifteen years after the K-Gun offense, Buffalo is going no-huddle again. What to call this one? The Cincinnati Chili offense. It comes in two-way (two backs and a tight end), three-way (remove a back for a wide receiver) and four-way (four wideouts). Offensive coordinator Turk Schonert was a backup quarterback for the Bengals in the late 1980s, when Cincinnati went no-huddle; the Bills under Jim Kelly ended up with credit for the idea, but Cincinnati did it first in the modern NFL. Using the no-huddle occasionally makes sense, to throw defenses off. Unless you've got Kelly, Kent Hull and Thurman Thomas, going no-huddle all the time may just put added pressure on the defense, owing to snap-the-fingers three-and-outs.

Cincinnati chili
Pregame meal for the Cincinnati Chili offense.

While a Cincinnati Chili no-huddle may sound like aggressive strategy, in 2008, Schonert was hyperconservative. "Football Scientist" K.C. Joyner -- what does his laboratory look like? -- says that in 2008, 75 percent of Buffalo's passing attempts covered 10 yards or less. The Bills threw more than 10 yards the second-lowest amount in the NFL. With Schonert calling endless ultra-short passes, defenses choked up, which made it easier to stop Buffalo's run. The team's embarrassing streak of no-playoff seasons will continue if the offense doesn't stop being so predictable and throw down the field. In 2008, the Bills failed to score a touchdown in three of their final five contests; they scored a total of six points in their final three home games. A reason was hyperconservative play calling. Say what you will about Terrell Owens, he brings touchdowns on his résumé. In the past two seasons, Buffalo had 15 touchdown receptions by wide receivers; during the same period, Owens had 25 touchdown receptions -- almost twice as many as the entire receiving corps of the team he's joined!

Excellent special teams have become a Buffalo hallmark -- Bobby April is the league's best special teams coach -- but this only proves special teams matter a lot less than offense and defense, or the Bills would be in the playoffs. And if only the head coach were as good as the special teams coach. As the once-proud Bills enter the season the sole AFC club without a playoff appearance in this decade, the coach remains Dick "Cheerio, Chaps" Jauron, who has just one career winning season. The AFC East test of manhood is playing the Patriots. Jauron has lost all six of his games against New England while coaching the Bills, his team outscored by a humiliating average of 21 points per game in that span. Against the Patriots under Jauron, Buffalo usually rolls over by the second quarter. Jauron never seems upset, or even to care -- he just jogs off the field, then makes excuses. Until the Bills have a coach who doesn't make excuses, the embarrassing playoff drought will continue.

Cincinnati: After years of crummy defense, the Bengals quietly finished 12th defensively in 2008 -- impressive given their league-worst offense constantly sent the defense back onto the field. The Trick-or-Treats recorded just 20 touchdowns in 2008, a wretched number, and just 17 from the offense. Is there reason to think Cincinnati won't have the league's worst offense again in 2009? Leading receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is gone, as are starting offensive tackles Levi Jones and Stacy Andrews. Perhaps when your offense is the league's worst, it does not matter who you lose. But who are the replacements? The Bengals may have thrown the sixth selection of the draft out the window by using it on offensive tackle Andre Smith, who was trouble in college and is reinforcing his negative rep by holding out.

"Slotting" dictates 95 percent of a first-round pick's contract, so Smith's holdout can impact only 5 percent of his deal, while dramatically increasing the odds he will become a bust, and thus lose significant future income. As he sits munching chips and playing video games while his teammates sweat in the sun, Smith not only harms his chance of long-term success but alienates his future teammates. Imagine how the other Bengals players must feel about Smith -- who's never taken a snap, yet awards himself the summer off because he won't sign a contract that contains more guaranteed money than enjoyed by all but one Cincinnati player already out in the sun earning his pay. Aaron Maybin of Buffalo, B.J. Raji of Green Bay and other first-round picks held out way too long, pointlessly, since "slotting" dictated their deals anyway. They didn't accomplish anything other than harming their own long-term chances of becoming stars. TMQ thinks teams should take the hard-edge approach of reducing their contract offer daily once training camp ends: since at that point, with each passing day, the first-round pick has less value to the team. If the player is going to be worthless in his first season, why should he receive a huge bonus for that season?

Smith's holdout is yet another argument the NFL should shift to a rookie wage scale that ends negotiating altogether for first-year players. A rookie scale is a must to stop the ridiculousness of unproven players receiving more than stars (Matt Stafford got $42 million in guarantees before taking a snap; Eli Manning, a Pro Bowl quarterback who's won a Super Bowl, got $35 million guaranteed in his new deal) and to prevent promising players from turning themselves into busts. Why do agents advise holdouts? The good agents don't! Incompetent or vainglorious agents have clients hold out because they want to brag that they brought an NFL franchise to its knees, blah, blah. This violates the ethical standard of agency: The agent must act in the client's interest, not the agent's interest. And please future No. 1 picks, understand this: The market sets your contract value, not the agent. A good agent can improve a deal's details. But no agent has ever dictated how much a team pays a player, and no agent ever will.

Cleveland: Twenty touchdowns, only 17 by the offense. Doesn't that stat belong in the Cincinnati item? Hmm, it's the Cleveland stat for 2008 too. The Bengals had the worst offense in 2008, the Browns the second-worst. The Browns and Bengals averaged 5.2 yards per pass attempt -- below the league average of 5.4 yards per play, including rushes. In 2008, the Browns and Bengals combined to score 40 touchdowns and allow 85 -- ouch! Didn't they used to know how to play football in Ohio? Maybe Delphos Saint John's or Youngstown Ursuline high schools should be put in charge of the state's pro football franchises.

Map of Ohio
A place where they once knew how to play football.

What did Cleveland get for the fifth choice in the draft? Veterans Kenyon Coleman (defensive end), Abram Elam (safety) and Brett Ratliff (quarterback), and rookies Alex Mack (center), David Veikune (linebacker), Coye Francies (cornerback) and James Davis (running back). A no-name group to be sure. But through multiple trade-downs, the fifth overall choice was turned into seven players, several of whom should be legit contributors -- and all of whom, combined, will play for less than what the Jets gave Mark Sanchez, chosen with that fifth slot. Will the Browns end up wishing they'd simply taken Sanchez? There's a good chance.

New boss Eric Mangini spent $500,000 to remodel the coaches' office. Maybe in the process he discovered the bugs Bill Belichick left in the wall! Did Mangini, like former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, spend $68,000 on a credenza or $35,000 for a commode for his personal washroom? Thain's 2008 remodeling binge cost $1.2 million, money spent as Merrill was in the process of self-destructing. Yet there's a certain logic to the $68,000 credenza. If your business is a high-class confidence scam designed to separate investors from their money, a very fancy office surely helps. To make a football coaches' office impressive in business terms, some championship trophies would be nice. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan declared, "We'll be an attacking defense." Just once TMQ would like to hear a coach say, "We'll be a conservative read-and-react defense." Last year, Ryan's Oakland defense played well -- finishing 10th, despite the cloak of invisibility wrapped around the Raiders team -- so of course Al Davis showed him the door.

Stefania Fernandez
Miss Universe 2010 -- she survived three weeks with the other contestants.
Contest Continues to Call Itself Miss Universe Though Only Contestants from Earth Are Allowed: Congratulations to the new Miss Universe, Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela, who must be mentioned in order to create a perfectly legitimate reason for the ESPN.com art department to run her swimsuit picture. Contestants arrived at the pageant site in the Bahamas on Aug. 3 for a judging not final until Aug. 23. After three weeks in round-the-clock contact, imagine how much they despised each other by the time the crown was placed on Stefania's head!

Reader Bruno Costa of from Brasília, Brazil, notes, "During the Miss Universe pageant this evening, I found it curious when the presenter, describing a regular fishbowl from which the five finalists would draw a question, called it a 'glamorous, high-tech fishbowl.' What's next, a digital, third-generation paper weight?"

Denver: Maybe becoming the sole NFL team ever to blow a three-game division lead with three games remaining was cause to get Mike Shanahan fired, but insufferable as Shanahan was, he sure did win lots of games. Now the reigns are held by 32-year-old Josh McDaniels. Considering Denver had the No. 2 offense in the NFL last season, Jeremy Bates may be missed as much as Shanahan. The 32-year-old Bates called Broncos plays and did a fine job preparing Jay Cutler; McDaniels didn't seem to want another whiz-kid rival on the staff, especially since McDaniels called plays the past two seasons in New England. Bates decamped to USC, where he is now "assistant head coach of the offense," rather than offensive coordinator.

Passing stats were great for Denver in 2008, but the Broncos couldn't rush, right? That was the sportsyak consensus. Actually, Denver finished 12th in rushing, ahead of Jacksonville, San Diego, Dallas, Houston and Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh. This, despite Denver's leading rusher being Peyton Hillis with 343 yards. Give-or-take was the stat that doomed the Broncos. They were minus-17 in turnover margin, tied for worst in the league, and would have been minus-18 if not for Ed Hochuli.

Spencer Larsen
Spencer Larsen, man of steel.

Personnel Note 1: TMQ is rooting for Denver's Spencer Larsen, who started both ways in a game against the Falcons last year. Personnel Note 2: the Broncos traded two third-round choices for a second-round choice used to draft Richard Quinn, a tight end with 12 career receptions in college. He's expected to be a good blocker in the NFL, but likely could have been taken significantly later in the draft. It's as if all those extra picks from the Cutler trade were burning a hole in Denver's pocket, and just had to be spent immediately. Of course, McDaniels apprenticed under Bill Belichick, who always spends liberally (in money and draft choices) on tight ends, an underappreciated position.

Staff note: Honk if you've been fired as defensive coordinator by Denver! Over the past seven seasons, the Broncos have cashiered five defensive coordinators: Jim Bates, Larry Coyer, Ray Rhodes, Greg Robinson and now Bob Slowik. It was the third time Slowik had been fired after a single-year stint as an NFL defensive coordinator. All told, Slowik has been defensive coordinator for the Bears, Broncos, Browns and Packers, and an assistant or a coordinator for the Cowboys, East Carolina University, Rutgers, Drake and the University of Florida. That's nine employers -- which doesn't make him weird, in football coaching terms. That makes him normal.

Houston: Who had the third-ranked offense in the NFL last season? Not plodding Houston! Yes, the Texans. Statistically, the Houston offense was red-hot: 37 touchdowns, almost 3,000 yards gained between Andre Johnson and Steve Slaton, 6 yards per play, good stats everywhere you look. So how come the team finished just 8-8? They are the Houston Texans, that's why! The NFL's least interesting team. The Texans are so unexciting that even a statistically impressive season was monotonous.

U.S Flag
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the single most successful color scheme in world history.

This may have something to do with Houston's dissing the colors of the American flag -- not to put too fine a point on it, but the single most successful color scheme in world history. Houston's colors are red, white and blue -- but not red, white and flag blue. Instead, the team's colors officially are deep steel blue, battle red and liberty white. The colors of the American flag are not good enough for Houston! The Bills once wore the colors of the American flag, and regularly went to the Super Bowl. Since deciding the colors of the American flag are not good enough for Buffalo -- the Bills now use a color that's officially blue, but to TMQ is "rusting Russian dreadnaught aft bulkhead cyanic" -- Buffalo has not made the postseason. The Texans dissed the American flag, and have never gone to the playoffs. The Bills dissed the American flag, and immediately stopped going to the playoffs. Now, tell me you don't believe in the football gods!

Houston won five of its last six in the 2008 campaign and played its best game in December -- a squeaker over Tennessee. These facts give the Texans' faithful hope. Texans opponents are given hope by the 20 interceptions that Houston quarterbacks heave-hoed last season.

A Cosmic Thought: Researchers led by Swinburne University of Technology, in Australia, released this map of the "nearby" cosmos. The map contains about 100,000 dots. The dots are not stars; each dot represents a galaxy, and galaxies are thought to average about 100 billion stars each. Thus the area depicted contains holds roughly 10 to the 15th power stars, a number far too huge to bother attempting to fathom. And the map merely shows galaxies nearby. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is at the center of the map. On the cosmic scale, a place with 100 billion stars is a dot.

Indianapolis: Have the Colts fallen off your radar in the two years since their Super Bowl triumph? Put them back on, because last season Indianapolis won nine of its final 10, the sole loss being a playoff defeat, at the hands of the Chargers, during which there were several fluky plays and questionable calls in the fourth quarter and overtime. In the second half of last season, the Colts' offense was its usual methodical self; the Colts' pass defense was spectacular all season, allowing a league-low six touchdowns. The sole Indianapolis weakness was the center of the team's run defense. Last season, Keyunta Dawson, a defensive end in college, started 14 games for Indianapolis as a defensive tackle -- at 254 pounds. This year he moves to defensive end, while enormous Fili Moala takes over the spot. If the Colts' rush defense can merely be average, TMQ makes this team the AFC favorite. And yes, there is a Colts-Patriots game yet again -- these two seem to meet more often than any other nondivision pair. Mark your calendar for Nov. 15.

Howard Mudd, the Colts' offensive line coach, had been the NFL's longest-serving assistant coach, at 35 years, when he "quit" this offseason. Eleven-year offensive coordinator Tom Moore "quit" too, at age 70. Neither said pension rules were the reason, though that angle got a lot of press. Maybe they were just burned out on football. Maybe because Tony Dungy departed, they decided not to start over with Jim Caldwell. Maybe they felt steamed that Caldwell forced aside their mutual friend, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks; anybody who was Dungy's longtime choice for defensive coordinator must be good. (Meeks took the defensive coordinator post at Carolina.) Maybe they were steamed that after lengthy loyal service to the Colts, Indianapolis did not offer them contract extensions, only one-season arrangements. Maybe they assumed Caldwell would show them the door soon, too. Maybe Indianapolis is in the process of changing from one of the NFL's best-coached teams to a franchise with sideline disarray. And maybe I'm amazed! Anyway, this summer Moore and Mudd came back, with the wonderfully glorified titles of senior offensive coordinator and senior offensive line coach. Perhaps next year, Moore will be offensive coordinator emeritus.

Jacksonville: Nobody's had more high-profile personnel blunders lately than Jax. In winter 2008, the team gave a combined $23 million to Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence as free agents, then cut both this winter. In winter 2008, the Jaguars gave David Garrard nearly $20 million guaranteed, and he promptly celebrated by taking the 2008 season off. In spring 2008, Jacksonville surrendered a first, two thirds and a fourth-round draft choice to select Derrick Harvey, who was indiscernible as a rookie. This winter, the team waived Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, both recent first-round selections. All these moves cost general manager James Harris his job -- and he quickly signed on with Detroit, the club that rivals Jacksonville for worst personnel moves. The latest Jacksonville point of emphasis is offensive tackle: The team signed veteran Tra Thomas, then used its first two draft selections on tackles. Tackle Tony Pashos seems to have gotten the message, having lost 20 pounds in the offseason. Like pretty much everyone on the Jags' roster, Pashos was terrific in 2007 and awful in 2008. And what was the point of throwing Fred Taylor overboard? Sure, his career nears its end. Taylor's 11,271 yards with Jacksonville ranks fifth in yards by a player with the same team; keep him around for sentimental reasons!

Jacksonville Municipal Stadium
Give the stadium a better name, and maybe people would want to come.

Of course, there's no point in being sentimental in a vacant house. Jacksonville has more trouble selling tickets than any NFL franchise, averaging 60,400 per game last year, versus 70,700 in Green Bay and 67,750 in Buffalo, the league's other small markets. With more than 55,000 season tickets sold for 2009, economically depressed Buffalo is certain to outdo Jacksonville at the gate. In an era when NFL ultra-popularity is supposed to be bulletproof, league management is nervous about Jacksonville's situation. One result is a Jax-only blackout policy which allows games to be televised locally when 50,000 of the 67,164 seating capacity is sold. Everywhere else in the NFL, only a packed house lifts a blackout. Despite the lenient rule, the organization is bracing for a string of games this season which aren't likely to be shown on local television. The venue still lacks a sponsor, being Jacksonville Municipal Stadium for three years since the Alltel deal expired; why would a sponsor pay to put its name on a place people don't want to visit and can't watch on television? At least the city of Jacksonville, which owns the facility, should give the home field a name with a ring. We live in a message-oriented society, and Jacksonville Municipal Stadium communicates the message "This city is Dullsville." TMQ suggests Saint Johns River Stadium. That's got some ring. Maybe people would want to go there.

Ideal Government Program -- Build New Clunkers, Then Immediately Junk Them: Can anyone explain why American taxpayers are being taxed, via the Cash for Clunkers program, to subsidize the destruction of low-mileage cars -- while simultaneously being taxed to support General Motors, which just released a 426-horsepower, 16-mpg Camaro to complement its 556-horsepower, 15-mpg Cadillac? Under the Cash for Clunkers mileage rules, both cars classify as clunkers! Taxpayers are simultaneously paying to destroy old low-mileage cars and build new low-mileage cars. Check the Detroit-manufactured cars listed by the EPA as "worst in class" for fuel waste -- you are being taxed to subsidize the building and promotion of these cars. Plus, the White House and many in Congress want to begin restricting greenhouse gases. I think action against greenhouse gases is scientifically justified. But if greenhouse gas regulation is enacted, you will simultaneously be taxed to reduce greenhouse gases and taxed to support construction of polluting machines such as the 556-horsepower Cadillac, which the EPA says emits 11 tons of greenhouse gases per year, one of the worst global-warming scores of any current passenger vehicle. General Motors has started to build high-quality, good-mileage cars, including the new Malibu and the new fuel-efficient Equinox SUV. That's good news. Why are average people being taxed to subsidize everything General Motors builds, including wasteful, high-polluting rich men's playthings like this?

Clunkers
New clunkers are rolling off the assembly line, subsidized by your taxes.

Meanwhile, auto dealers who credited customers with $4,500 for clunker deals are discovering federal rebate checks have not yet arrived. What's the matter, dealers -- didn't you read the fine print? Perhaps auto dealers have fallen for a bait-and-switch! Here, a dealer negotiates with Barack Obama:

AUTO DEALER: Where's my check for $4,500? You said it was in the mail.

OBAMA: [Waves thick contract] Look right here, subparagraph 14d. It clearly states the money will be paid on the third Tuesday of a month that begins with a waning gibbous moon. You read subparagraph 14d, didn't you?

DEALER: No -- I was tired -- you assured me it was just paperwork.

OBAMA: Well! Maybe I can still get you the discount, if you buy rustproofing and splashguards.

DEALER: Your ads didn't say anything about rustproofing.

OBAMA: [Waves printout] Look, I am giving you everything below my cost. See, here's my factory invoice. My revenue is $2.2 trillion, yet I am spending $3.9 trillion. [Note: actual federal budget figures for current fiscal year]

DEALER: Wait a minute -- if you're really selling below cost, how do you stay in business?

OBAMA: We make it up in volume.

DEALER: Just give me my $4,500!

OBAMA: OK. I have to ask my manager. [Disappears into back]

DEALER: I wonder if he's really checking with his manager.

OBAMA: [Returns] Tell you what, you can use the $4,500 as a down payment on the $11 trillion debt your children will owe. While you're here, would you like free health care? It's going to cost you.

Giants Stadium
Will this be the size of the entire crowd when the Giants' and Jets' new stadium is complete?

Jersey/B: The perpetually sold-out Jets are hustling to move unsold seats at the Meadowlands for the 2009 season. Is this the economy, or disgust at the Brett Favre nonsense? Perhaps the leading factor is a general sense that the next New Jersey stadium, which opens in 2010, is so overpriced that a season ticket in 2009 is devalued. Here's why: Part of the reason to purchase a season ticket is to hold the right to renew in future years. If, beginning in 2010, Jets season tickets will price themselves out of the market, such that the buyer does not expect to renew, this year's season ticket loses value. Thus, the overpriced stadium isn't even open yet -- and is already hurting sales! As TMQ constantly warns, there is no law of nature that says the NFL must remain popular. If the Jets (and also the Giants) price themselves out of the view-of-the-Hudson market, this could be a bad barometer for the league overall. At least the new stadium finally will add a train station to allow smart fans to beat the gameday nightmare of waiting in traffic for two hours to get out of the parking lots.

This summer the Jets held camp at a college campus in Cortland, N.Y., despite a gift of $20 million in taxpayer money from the state of New Jersey to get the team to move its training facility to Florham Park, N.J. The field at Florham Park is quite nice -- it even has a grandstand -- but not a college town atmosphere, which is good for training camp. At least summer camp allows the ostensible "New York" franchises to have some fleeting presence in the Empire State. The Giants' operation is entirely in New Jersey, except for summer camp in Albany; the Jets are all-Jersey, all-the-time -- except for summer camp, too. Historical note: The great 1954 film "On the Waterfront" is set in Red Hook, a dockyard district of Brooklyn. The movie's waterfront scenes were filmed in Hoboken, N.J. So even in the 1950s, New Jersey was passing for New York! Current events note: The Waterfront Commission, lauded in the film for busting up organized crime, is itself now corrupt.

On The Waterfront
"I'm real confused. About my brother. About whether to talk to the commission. About why this is Brooklyn, but in the background, we see New Jersey."

The throwback game TMQ wants to see is Titans at Jets on Sept. 27 -- in throwback terms, the contest is Oilers at Titans.

Kansas City: What's the deal with Kansas City giving up on Tyler Thigpen? Getting Matt Cassel for a second-round choice seems good value, but then giving Cassel a monster contract -- about $30 million in guarantees -- means he'll play and Thigpen will sit. Cassel looked good in 2008, but has started only 17 games in the past nine years! For each start in the past nine years, he winds up with $1.8 million in guarantees. New Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli better be really sure about this guy, because his first act in Kansas City is not only to gamble $30 million on a possible one-year wonder, but in effect to bench Thigpen, who performed with flair and promise in 2008.

New coach Todd Haley has announced the Chiefs will play a "blend" of the 3-4 and the 4-3. That is to say -- they will play defense. Which actually represents a policy change!

Kansas City's defense was cover-your-eyes awful in 2008, seven times surrendering 30 or more points. The Chiefs and Packers this year adopt a base 3-4, but does this really matter? Modern NFL defenses switch looks so often that whether you are a base 3-4 or 4-3 seems mainly semantics. What matters is how good your players are. If they're good, you can line them up in a 1-5-5. (See Pittsburgh item.) Not for the faint of heart: The Chiefs were outscored by 101 points after halftime in 2008.

Miami: No NFL team was more fun in 2008 than the Dolphins. Worst-to-first, high school tactics, a Buddhist tailback, Chad Pennington beating the team that waived him in the season finale, a 9-1 streak, Bill Parcells scowling angrily in the press box during a 9-1 streak -- the 2008 Dolphins certainly were worth the price of admission. Now the Dolphins add Pat White, a terrific college quarterback who can throw as well as run from the Wildcat. Miami-Indianapolis, Miami-San Diego, Miami-New Orleans, Miami-Pittsburgh, two Miami-New England games -- the Dolphins may end up appearing in more entertaining contests than any other NFL team this season.

Dolphins cheerleader
Even actual dolphins would like to kiss Miami's glamorous cheerleaders.

Miami has even been making entertaining transactions. Last summer, the Dolphins got a second-round draft choice for Jason Taylor. Now he's back in Miami and playing for $1.1 million, rather than the $8.5 million his old contract would have called for. Recently, the Dolphins have sunk five second-round draft choices into quarterbacks -- John Beck, Daunte Culpepper, A.J. Feeley, Chad Henne and White. Why did they waive Beck this spring -- he's now the backup in Baltimore -- rather than try to get something for him? Two years ago, Miami received a second-round draft choice from New England for Wes Welker and used that selection on center Samson Satele. This offseason, Miami traded Satele to Oakland for a sixth-round choice, later used on tackle Andrew Gardner. So the net is that Miami traded Wes Welker, a Pro Bowl receiver in his prime, for Andrew Gardner.

The Dolphins will play in Land Shark Stadium, the fifth name for this facility. TMQ is still waiting for Your Trademark Here Stadium. Actually, that could happen in Miami, as the name rights deal does not cover this year's Super Bowl there. For the Super Bowl, Land Shark Stadium could become, say, AIG Arena. Or maybe Your Celebrity Here Stadium, considering Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Serena and Venus Williams recently bought small shares of the franchise. TMQ hopes some lesser entertainers buy in too: say, Dan Hicks, Katrina Leskanich and Weird Al Yankovic.

Electronics Will Make Your Life Easier: Recently I replaced the aging Official Family Van of TMQ with a new Honda Odyssey, built in Lincoln, Ala. The section of the owner's manual that concerns how to operate the radio, audio players, cell phone connections and entertainment systems is 129 pages long. At least I didn't trade in a clunker! Here is the handy 136-page instruction book for the federal giveaway program.

New England: AFC East investments in quarterbacks in the past decade, by teams other than New England: five first-round draft choices, nine second-round choices, one third-rounder, two fourth-rounders, plus several other starters. Result: Buffalo, Jersey/B and Miami enter this season with average or unsettled quarterback situations. Investments by New England in the same period: a third-round and fourth-round choice used, but first- and second-round choices gained (from trading Drew Bledsoe and Matt Cassel), leaving the team ahead in draft terms. Result: Patriots enter the season with a former NFL MVP, Tom Brady, at quarterback. One reason New England consistently wins is because the Flying Elvii aren't sinking high draft choices or trade value into quarterbacks, like everyone else. In the past quarter-century, New England has spent only two first-round choices (Bledsoe, 1993; Tony Eason, 1983) and no second-round choices on quarterbacks. All those picks not expended on quarterbacks mean lots of defensive backs, guards, tight ends and other less glamorous players drafted, and a team with a deep, quality roster. For instance, the entire center of the New England defensive front -- Jerod Mayo, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork -- is made up of high-first-round picks. This is possible because the team invests so little in drafting quarterbacks.

Bill Belichick presents a stone face to the world, but succeeds in part because he is open to change. For the past two years, the Patriots have run an offense that is all but identical to Urban Meyer's Florida spread -- more on that in an upcoming column on the spread phenomenon. The Patriots' spread is also fast-paced -- New England had 1,097 offensive snaps in 2008, the most in the league, by getting to the line quickly. The more snaps your offense runs, the more opportunities for yards. But the Patriots can't rush, right? That's what you hear on sports talk radio. Actually, New England finished sixth in rushing in 2008. Even those who don't like the Pats must admit that it was unfair they did not advance to the postseason despite an 11-5 record, while 8-8 San Diego did. Will the NFL ever rationalize its playoff system and switch to a seeded-postseason format? By the way, New England opens 2009 on a 42-10 run.

Gisele Bundchen
Gisele Bündchen -- without her dogs or quarterback, but with her umlaut.

What did the Patriots receive for the 23rd selection in the draft? Through a double trade-down, New England ended up with cornerbacks Darius Butler and Derek Cox plus wide receiver Brandon Tate. At least one of these skinny guys better succeed, since by trading down New England passed on Michael Oher and Eric Wood, promising offensive linemen who play positions New England needed to improve. Belichick said after the draft that he regretted not grabbing Wood, a puzzling comment since in the course of his double trade-down, Belichick passed on Wood twice. Making several draft weekend trades, the Patriots exchanged cornerback Ellis Hobbs for guard Rich Ohrnberger and long-snapper Jake Ingram. And lest you forget, New England already has three second-round draft choices in the bank for 2010.

Now that Brady is back into male modeling, do he and Gisele represent the NFL's first husband-wife modeling team? And why did his cover shoot for Details include photos seemingly taken in an abandoned motel? Brady is not, however, the NFL's sole male model -- Brandon London of the Dolphins also moonlights as a male model.

Brandon Landon
Brandon London's modeling income is slightly less than Gisele's.

Sand Trap on Obama's Fairway: Federal borrowing during the final two years of the George W. Bush administration, and now the first year of the Barack Obama administration, has reached the level of shocking. World War II cost about $4 trillion in today's dollars -- the Congressional Budget Office figures show the decade starting with Bush's final two budgets until fiscal 2017 will add $11 trillion in federal borrowing, at current rates. That's more than the entire national debt was in early 2008. This furious, irresponsible borrowing -- gleefully endorsed by both political parties, since the money is being lavished on the special interest groups who ensure the re-elections of members of Congress by donating to their campaigns -- is especially disturbing because there is no national emergency. The United States is tapping out its ability to borrow, leaving nothing in reserve, so that irresponsible members of Congress of both parties can lavish subsidies and tax favors on interest groups. Why aren't the young shocked? Almost all the honey is going to people from middle age on up, with the bill being handed to the young, who will pay and pay and pay all their lives for the favors the Baby Boomers running the country are so cynically awarding to themselves and their financial backers.

Bad as current borrowing is, more demands for special giveaways are looming in Obama's path. As soon as the dust settles on the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, the United Auto Workers may demand that its concessions be restored, at taxpayer expense. (More on that in a coming TMQ.) The states, showered with $135 billion in borrowed money during the first Obama stimulus package, already are agitating for another giveaway. (More on that coming too.) The monster problem looming is this: For the first time in the history of the Social Security system, recipients will not receive a cost-of-living increase when the new year begins. The Social Security checks that arrive in January 2010 won't be any bigger than previous checks. (Owing to details of the prescription-drug benefit, some checks may be a little bit smaller -- by two or three dollars per month -- than at the same time last year.) Senior citizen lobbies are likely to go ballistic.

There's a good reason why Social Security checks won't be bigger -- no inflation. The Social Security cost of living adjustment system is designed to compensate for rising costs, and the cost of living is not rising. Indeed, in the past 12 months, the Consumer Price Index has declined 2.1 percent. The enabling statutes of the Social Security program say that if prices don't rise, no COLA, which makes perfectly good sense. It's just that prices have never gone an entire year without rising, so there's never been a no-COLA January. To a retiree on a fixed income, rising costs are awful, while declining costs are a godsend. Because the CPI has gone down, seniors as a group are slightly better off financially in 2009 than they were in 2008. (Obviously, there are some individuals with financial problems.) So there's no need for a Social Security benefits increase, and no common sense justification for one. That will not prevent the senior citizens' lobby, more potent than the oil lobby or farm lobby, from howling.

Senior citizens
Will seniors demand a special giveaway?

TMQ fears that whenever it sinks in on seniors that no COLA increase is coming in 2010, they will barrage congressional delegations and the White House with demands for a special giveaway. Illogical appeals will be used and repeated in the media, such as, "We need extra money because of the crisis!" In politics, everything's a crisis -- a bright sunny day is a crisis if the interest group in your district sells flashlights. Or, "Our housing values are down, it's a crisis!" Housing prices are indeed down from their 2006 peak, but the typical American dwelling is still worth nearly 50 percent more than in 2000. That's no crisis. If anything, the recession has slightly aided seniors, who enjoy the deflationary benefits of falling prices but in most cases are not harmed by employment trends because they are retired anyway.

Senior lobbies demanding a special handout will skip over the fact that senior households have the highest median net worth of any age group, much higher than the net worth of the under-35 age group that would be compelled to fund any special Social Security increase; or that seniors have a lower poverty rate than the nation as a whole. They'll skip over the complication that the typical current Social Security recipient will receive about three times as much as he or she paid into the system, plus interest, while people now under the age of 35 will be lucky to get back half what they will pay into Social Security, plus interest. (That Social Security is a "savings" program is total fiction -- it is an income-transfer program, from today's workers to today's pensioners.) They'll skip over the fact that owing to a quirk in Social Security rules, recipients received an unusually high 5.8 percent COLA in January 2009, even though there was essentially zero inflation in the previous year. (The calculation formula for Social Security COLAs drastically overstated the temporary 2008 spike in gasoline prices.) One reason federal borrowing has shot up is that Social Security recipients got a 2009 bonus they shouldn't have received. This may not stop them from demanding an extra giveaway in January 2010 -- a giveaway that could only be financed by still more borrowing. Obama must show resolve and not give in to another multibillion-dollar borrowing-based handout. If he gives in, all semblance of fiscal discipline in Washington may collapse -- and liberal government may be discredited for a generation, which is not in the interest of senior citizens.

Oakland: The Raiders are on their sixth head coach in nine years, which sounds like a troubled high school program. Wait, the Raiders are a troubled high school program. Contrast the Raiders to the Steelers, who have had three head coaches in the past 30 years, and just won their league-best sixth Super Bowl. Since Oakland showed the door to Jon Gruden, who was 40-28 with the Raiders, the team is 37-78. Al Davis thought he pulled a clever steal by getting a bundle of draft choices for Gruden; instead, the Raiders went straight downhill. And who were the draft choices spent on? Oakland made so many subsequent trades with the picks, the answer isn't simple, but as you can see here, overall the swap was a fiasco for the Raiders. Fiascos, of course, have become standard operating procedure in Oakland. For example, the Raiders gave up a second-round draft choice for DeAngelo Hall, and got eight games from him before waiving him.

Ted Tollner is now the Raiders' "passing game coordinator" while Paul Hackett is the quarterbacks coach. But there's no offensive coordinator. Presumably these odd titles are because Hackett and Tollner have extensive NFL and Division I experience as offensive coordinators; if one held the title at Oakland, the other would be furious. But is anyone in charge of the Raiders' offense? This, of course, has been a question since Rich Gannon was the team's quarterback. And note that even as NFL job titles continue to become inflated, a grandiose job description is not necessarily worth much. In February 2008, Tollner was named assistant to the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Great title! Ten months later, Tollner was fired.

Christmas Creep Watch: Nathan Colborne of North Bay, Ontario, writes, "We received our Sears 'Wish Book' Christmas catalog on August 14." Chad Edwards of Charlotte, N.C., reports that on Aug. 18 he received a Christmas-themed e-mail promo from the Del Friscos steakhouse, urging him to plan his holiday parties with the declaration, "The holiday season is just around the corner." The e-mail added cryptically, "Ask about our holiday incentives."

A Christmas Carol
The poster says, "Season's Greedings Nov 6." Neither "greedings" nor "Nov 6" is a typo.

Christmas Carol Creep Watch: Reader Anthony Lowenberg of Dallas writes, "A train was parked in downtown Dallas the week of August 17 to promote the latest movie version of 'A Christmas Carol.' In Christmas Creep form, the new film opens on November 6. A display in a store is one thing, but standing in line in Texas midsummer heat to see a 'Christmas Carol' display is insane!" The latest "Christmas Carol" stars comedian Jim Carrey; its premiere is not only prior to Thanksgiving, it is prior to Armistice Day. This makes it likely "A Christmas Carol" will close before Christmas!

According to Wikipedia, there are at least 21 film adaptations of "A Christmas Carol," which has passed into the public domain -- you don't have to buy the rights. TMQ's favorite is the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, with a young Patrick Macnee as the young Jacob Marley and Mervyn Johns performing the definitive Bob Cratchit. This version leaves all others in the dust, in part because only lines from the novella are used -- the producers did not think they had a better sense of story and dialogue than Charles Dickens! (TMQ shudders to imagine what Jim Carrey will do to one of the English language's great works.) Treat yourself to the Alastair Sim version, whose DVD is titled "A Christmas Carol," though the 1951 theatrical release was titled "Scrooge."

Pittsburgh: Last season, Pittsburgh allowed 49 sacks -- only Cincinnati, Detroit and San Francisco were worse. Yet oft-sacked Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, while two of the three least-sacked teams, New Orleans and Denver, did not make the playoffs. This is the kind of hidden indicator that must mean something -- if only TMQ knew what.

The Steelers' defense of 2008 numbers among the best ever -- just 14 points and 15 first downs per game allowed. Yet the unit is not stacked with high draft choices. Only Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons are first-round draft choices. Aaron Smith and LaMarr Woodley were second-round picks. Star linebacker James Harrison was undrafted. Starters James Farrior and Ryan Clark were let go by other teams. The rest are late-round selections or free agents who other teams passed on. The fact that the Pittsburgh defense isn't composed of glory boys surely is an element in its success. And if you want to beat this defense, beat it early. Last season, Pittsburgh outscored opponents 194-104 after halftime.

Though announcers call the team "Blitzburg," actually the Steelers show blitz far more often than they do blitz -- most of the time only four Steelers come after the QB. Though Pittsburgh's tactic of showing blitz then not blitzing is well known in the league, it still works -- the Steelers showed a mega-blitz, then did not blitz, on Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, the most important play of the 2008 NFL season. The problem with preparing for the Steelers is that although on most downs only four men will rush, the offense never knows which four -- any of the Steelers' 11 defenders may be pass-rushers, while anyone on the defensive line may drop into coverage. Last season on long-yardage downs, the Steelers showed a lot of 2-5-4 and even some 1-5-5 looks. An alignment with five linebackers is one quarterbacks rarely see, and therefore an effective source of confusion.

San Diego: For three consecutive seasons, the Chargers have been vulnerable early and invincible late -- the team hasn't lost a December game since 2005. Something seems to happen to this club in the month of December. Why can't San Diego start strong, rather than getting in a hole and then staging a comeback? This season, three of the Chargers' first four games are versus playoff teams from last season, so yet another stumble out of the gate is a danger. At least all of the Chargers' East Coast games are late starts, which is good for their body clocks.

Chargers Cheerleaders
Exhibit A for why sports writers extol the Chargers.

Sports writers love to extol the Chargers as an ultra-power team. Statistically, San Diego isn't that impressive, finishing last season ranked 25th on defense, 11th on offense. Though San Diego reached the divisional playoff round last season, this was decidedly fluky -- the Chargers backed into a division crown at 8-8, and ended the campaign 1-6 against teams that made the playoffs. So why do sports writers love the Chargers? The club has a swagger image, with LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and Shawne Merriman. They've got the best-looking uniforms in all of athletics, at least when they wear their powder blues. They've got a sun-drenched game environment and California-girl cheerleaders with sex appeal. Sports writers want a justification for an expense-account trip to San Diego, so they extol the Chargers.

Tennessee: Oh man, how Jeff Fisher must hate the sight of the Baltimore Ravens. Twice in this decade Tennessee has won home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in the AFC, and both times they've lost a first-round home playoff game to the Ravens. Last year's loss was doubly painful, as the Flaming Thumbtacks outperformed the Ravens on the field, gaining nearly twice as many yards, but committed three turnovers and lost 13-10. The killer snap of the contest was not a turnover, however. Trailing 10-7 with 4:26 remaining, Tennessee faced fourth-and-inches on the Baltimore 10. Fisher sent in the field goal unit. It didn't matter that a fourth-down attempt in the first half had failed -- what happened before had nothing to do with this down. At home, with the crowd roaring, needing less than a yard -- this was what TMQ calls a "go win the game" moment. Instead, Tennessee kicked a field goal for a tie, and eventually lost.

Do NFL coaches make super-conservative decisions in part owing to media pressure? Coaches know if they make conservative decisions they won't be criticized; if they gamble and fail, they will be denounced. As Fisher sent in the field goal unit on this fateful play, CBS announcer Dan Dierdorf declared, "This is a no-brainer, they absolutely must kick here." When later this decision turned out desperately wrong, the announcers, of course, said nothing about their own previous advice. It's not just Dierdorf or any one announcer -- as a group, sportscasters tend to say that coaches "must" order kicks on fourth-and-short and ridicule coaches when risks are taken. Unless, of course, the risk works.

You probably think of Titans quarterback Kerry Collins as someone whose foul-ups in his personal life early in his career prevented him from ever achieving his promise. Dig this: If Collins throws for 3,159 yards this season -- he threw for 2,676 a season ago -- he would pass Joe Montana on the all-time passing list.

Next Week: NFC preview, plus production begins on "Transformers Vs. A Christmas Carol," in theaters for summer 2010!

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He also is a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly.