Even on a television videotape of last weekend's Atlanta-Carolina matchup, one could sense the mounting frustration of Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers, palpably feel his ire as he was thwarted in his attempts to get to Falcons quarterback Doug Johnson.
One second-quarter sequence, on a second-and-long play, graphically illustrated Peppers' plight. As he rose out of his stance to attack the pocket, Peppers was double-teamed by right offensive tackle Todd Weiner and by tight end Alge Crumpler, but still managed to squeeze through the blocking sandwich they comprised. Suddenly into the backfield, he was then chip-blocked by fullback Justin Griffith.
And then as he closed to within sniffing distance of Johnson, the Falcons quarterback released the ball, and Peppers was forced to perform an incredible contortion simply to avoid contact and a possible personal foul penalty. Little wonder that Peppers, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2002 before his season was truncated by a four-game suspension for using a banned substance, ambled back to the defensive huddle shaking his head.
"People don't understand sometimes," lamented Peppers, "just how hard it is to get a sack in this league."
If the first month of the 2003 season is any indication, however, the epiphany could well be coming.
Oh, sure, quarterbacks have gone down in 2003, just as they do every season. But sacks have also gone down, reduced on a per-game basis, as offensive coordinators increasingly conjure up ways to protect their franchise performers.
There has been an average of 4.2 sacks per game through the first month of the season, a reduction of nearly 10 percent from the first four weekends of the 2002 campaign, when the average was 4.6 sacks per contest. Only 11 of the 32 defenses have double-digit sacks at this point and nine clubs have posted five sacks or fewer. The Arizona Cardinals, with the fewest sacks in the league over the last three years, have but two sacks in 2003.
Were the leaguewide trend to continue through the season, 2003 would mark the fewest sacks per game since 1994, when the average was 4.18 quarterback kills.
That possibility likely serves as little consolation for Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota or Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland, two quarterbacks currently sidelined because of injuries suffered in regular-season games. It is probably zero consolation to St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, sacked six times in the opener against the New York Giants, a game in which he sustained a concussion.
But the numbers are meaningful to defensive players being paid big money to sack the quarterback, who understand that their numbers have been blunted this season, and feel that it has become much more difficult to storm the pocket fortress.
"Teams will do whatever it takes, it seems, to (protect) the quarterback," said Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, who despite the opposition efforts, still has four sacks in his first three games. "The holding, the grabbing, chopping at your legs ... all of that stuff is part of it. Then you add the fact that almost every team is throwing off three- or five-step drops now, man, and it's tough to get (to the quarterback) on time. It's like an obstacle course. And then, by the time you get over all the hurdles, the ball is already out of the quarterback's hand. Yeah, it's frustrating, sure it is."
Indeed, offensive coordinators seem even more aware now of spinning a cocoon around their quarterbacks, trying to keep hits to a minimum. There is no empirical data to point out the increase in "maximum protection" blocking packages, but anyone who watches videotape on a regular basis should be able to detect that trend, even in an era of 'spread" formations. One indicator: Receptions by running backs are decreased because the backs are being kept in for blocking purposes.
The New York Giants' Michael Strahan, for instance, has just one sack, although no one can suggest he isn't playing at a high level. LaVar Arrington of Washington has wreaked havoc at times in 2003 but has but one sack. Miami end Jason Taylor, who led the NFL in 2002 with 18½ sacks, has one-half sack this year. The Green Bay Packers might need the dismantled KGB of vintage Soviet Union days to unearth their own "KGB," defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, whose sack total stands at two.
For sure, some new sack threats have emerged this season, like Mike Rucker of Carolina, who has taken advantage of the double-team attention Peppers has drawn, and the Jets' Shaun Ellis. A converted linebacker who had to resurrect his career in the CFL just three seasons ago, Bert Berry of Denver, has 4½ sacks. Baltimore Ravens rookie and first-round draft choice Terrell Suggs has four sacks, despite playing only about one-third of the snaps to date. Little, of the Rams, continues to be a terror.
Even with the performances of those players, however, some premier pass rushers have gotten the bum's rush in 2003. Big-time sacks have been relegated to sad sack(er)s in some cases. And offensive coordinators are extracting some degree of glee in enacting schemes that frustrate defenders accustomed to notching quarterback scalps.
"Whatever the cost," said one AFC offensive coordinator, "you protect the quarterback. And you can do it a lot of ways. Blocking schemes. Throwing (schemes). You name it. I mean, you look at Tampa Bay, where everyone always rips the offensive line and Brad Johnson isn't exactly a guy with any escape dimension. But they've given up just one sack this year. They just don't surrender sacks. It's partly a credit to the line, and partly a credit to Johnson, because the ball is out of his hand by the time the rush gets there. If you can frustrate the (pass rushers), get inside their heads before they can get inside your backfield, that's half the battle."
In truth, the average number of sacks per game has been shrinking the last few years, although this year's piddling number is most alarming to defensive coaches. The league average was 5.04 sacks per game in 1999. Since then, it dropped to 4.97 in 2000, to 4.82 in 2001 and 4.59 last season.
Among those unsurprised by that revelation was Jacksonville right defensive end Hugh Douglas, the nine-year veteran who has been around long enough to discern the trend, and who knows full-well the NFL's emphasis on protecting the quarterback.
"It's all about (the quarterback)," Douglas said. "It's like they've built a wall around them and they've dared (the rushers) to find a way to storm the castle."
Around the league
The proponents of awarding Super Bowl XLII to New York, heartened last week when the Giants and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority reached a deal that would permit the bid to move forward, might still experience rain on their parade. The league's Super Bowl committee met quietly this week, in advance of an NFL owner's session that will convene in Chicago on Oct. 29, and during which the site for the 2008 championship game will be selected. And according to one owner with knowledge of the committee's early preferences, the New York bid remains shaky, with Phoenix the most likely choice for Super Bowl XLII. Ever since commissioner Paul Tagliabue first suggested that New York and Washington, D.C., might be appropriate sites for a "northern tier" Super Bowl, there has been plenty of debate about the sagacity of such a move, with some owners feeling that patrons always prefer a warm weather city for the festivities that precede the title contest. In New York, everyone knew the bid was doomed without major upgrades at Giants Stadium, and that hurdle finally seemed navigated when a deal was struck in principle that would allow for $270 million in improvements necessary simply to meet the minimum guidelines for a Super Bowl host site. Under the agreement the Giants would pay for the renovations and receive major concessions, like no longer sharing with the NJSEA revenues from luxury suites and advertising, with the two sides managing the facility in tandem. But there is a hitch: First, the stadium authority's board of directors is not scheduled to vote on the agreement until Oct. 15, just two weeks before the owners meeting in Chicago. Second, and just as important, the agreement in principle has not yet been committed to writing. Without something in black and white, the league probably won't even consider the New York bid, so time is of the essence. It might seem just a formality to reduce the agreement to language. But such exercises have a way of taking more time than people think and, given how long it took for the NJSEA and the Giants to reach an accord in principle, it might be hard to officially complete the accord by the end of the month.
The unrest in the Atlanta locker room, which was obvious for the last few weeks to those who speak with Falcons players but only bubbled into the public consciousness the past few days, might not bode well for coach Dan Reeves and some of his lieutenants. One of the NFL's best coaches, a guy who will secure his 200th victory in coming weeks and will merit Hall of Fame consideration some day, Reeves has one season beyond this remaining on his contract. But there are already rumors that he won't be around for the final year of the three-year extension he signed when Arthur Blank purchased the club. The team's spiral might also scotch any chances for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who definitely yearns to be a head coach again, to be Reeves' successor. And it could affect the potential candidacy, as well, of current vice president Ron Hill for the general manager post Blank still hopes to fill at some point. Remember, Blank courted Steve Mariucci briefly last year when he was fired by the 49ers, attempting to hire him as a consultant. And as, some contend, a head coach in waiting. Blank is nothing if not a marketing maven. He's already got a superstar, in injured quarterback Mike Vick, in the fold. But if this is indeed Reeves' final go-round, the owner likely will want a big-name coach, maybe someone with roots in Southern college football, as his successor. For the time being, though, Reeves is going nowhere. The test now is to somehow quash the dissent festering in the locker room and to get better performances out of a team that, even accounting for Vick's absence, has not played to its talent level.
By the way, with a decimated secondary, look for the Falcons to bring plenty of blitzes against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon. Word around the league is that the Vikings running backs are a bit suspect in blitz pickups, and pass blocking in general, and that might be a shortcoming the Falcons attempt to exploit. Then again, if the Falcons blitz and the Vikings pick it up, wide receiver Randy Moss is apt to have a huge outing against the Atlanta undermanned secondary.
For a second consecutive season, there is a small group of Saints veterans who feel it is getting near the time for the coaches to pull the plug on quarterback Aaron Brooks, and to give backup Todd Bouman a start. Not surprisingly, some of the players are among the group that suggested Brooks be benched late last year, when a playoff spot was slipping from the team's grasp. You might recall that, last year, there were rumors that Brooks was playing with a damaged right shoulder. Brooks denied those whispers and then, notably, underwent shoulder surgery right after the season. This time around, there are no physical ailments with Brooks, but possibly some issues that go beyond the field. Brooks has posted adequate numbers to date, but there just seems to be something missing at times in the guy, and teammates suggest he typically avoids accountability for his mistakes. Given the fat new contract awarded Brooks last year, it would be difficult for management to sit him for a while, to perhaps allow him a chance to regain perspective. Plus, with the club now in dire straits, as further evidenced by a players-only confab this week, the Saints need to have their best players on the field. A few guys in the locker room, though, were reminding friends this week that the 2002 season might have been salvaged had backup Jake Delhomme been allowed off the bench. Yeah, the same Jake Delhomme the desperate Saints will face on Sunday afternoon when they play the Carolina Panthers. The last thing the Saints need, most of all frustrated coach Jim Haslett, is for Delhomme to play well. That might not only escalate the pressure on Brooks, but also on Haslett, who would be reminded by the vocal fans in The Big Uneasy that perhaps he should have played Delhomme some in 2002 and not allowed him to get away in free agency this spring. Saints officials contend they loved Delhomme and wanted to keep him around. But no one can blame Delhomme for bolting, not after last year, when players and fans lobbied for the Lafayette, La., native, but to no avail.
In another game during what is being hailed as the league's "homecoming weekend," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren returns to Green Bay, where he is still revered by the fans and some of the few remaining players of his successful tenure. Holmgren likely will feel a sense of pride when he looks across the field and sees Brett Favre, the player that he developed into a three-time MVP, and with whom he remains close. But when Holmgren looks out on the field and sees Packers tailback Ahman Green, he might get sick to his stomach. In one of the first moves he made as Seattle general manager and head coach, Holmgren dealt Green to the Packers, back in 2000. In retrospect, it might rank as one of the most lopsided trades in recent league history. Green is well on his way to a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. The guy Seattle received straight-up in return, second-year corner Fred Vinson, never played a single down for the Seahawks. He tragically tore the same anterior cruciate ligament twice, was eventually released, has failed in two comeback attempts with other clubs, and is now out of the game. Holmgren dealt away Green because he had Ricky Watters in his backfield at the time, Green was battling an asthma problem the coach worried might not be controlled with medication, and because the youngster had a fumbling problem. Green still puts the ball on the ground a little too much, but the asthmatic condition is under control, and he's the key man Holmgren's defense will have to halt to remain undefeated. Green, by the way, now has five runs of 50-plus yards, breaking the previous Green Bay record of four, held by Paul Hornung.
Last week, we noted in this space that Dallas coach Bill Parcells has done a masterful job in pushing all the right buttons with quarterback Quincy Carter, who has played very well in managing the first three games of the season. Carter is the kind of player who is prone to go into a shell -- actually, to pout, at times -- if overly criticized. For a long time now, the league has known that one of Parcells' biggest (if underrated) strengths was his feel for individual players, and what made each of them tick. Some guys need a kick in the rear-end, Parcells knows, and he delivers it. Other players, like Carter, need more of a pat-on-the-back approach, and Parcells quickly discerned that with the third-year veteran. Word is that, nearly every week, Parcells attempts to spend extra time with Carter, time that goes beyond their normal meeting periods at the complex. So far, it has paid off nicely for the Cowboys, who at 2-1 are one of the season's early surprises. And while on the subject of the Parcells-Carter relationship, a nod toward Cowboys assistant head coach and quarterbacks mentor Sean Payton, who certainly has contributed as well to Carter's early success. Sometimes in the NFL, you have to take a step backward before you move forward again, and Payton may be a prime example. When the New York Giants went to the Super Bowl in 2000, Payton, the club's offensive coordinator at the time, was a guy seemingly on the fast track toward becoming a head coach. Then, as the Giants offense stumbled in ensuing years and coach Jim Fassel ultimately took over the play-calling chores, Payton's star dropped a bit. You can't ever go too wrong, though, coaching on a Parcells staff. And now, if Carter continues to play well and the Cowboys keep surprising people, Payton may see his reputation rehabilitated. Which would be good because, from what we hear, Payton remains a very sharp offensive schemer.
One more insight into why players buy into Parcells sometimes: Two weeks ago, the San Diego Chargers phoned Dallas practice squad offensive lineman Torrin Tucker, an undrafted free agent, and wanted to sign him because of the injuries they had suffered at the position. The agent for Tucker considered the move and then, after speaking to Parcells, advised his client to stay put. How come? Parcells told agent Terry Bolar that Tucker had a future with the Cowboys, which Dallas assistants agree is the case, and that he would be signed to the active roster within the next week or two. This week, Parcells kept his word, elevating Tucker to the active roster.
Jets coach Herm Edwards used his team's bye this weekend to shake up the lineup in some areas and, rest assured, it marks just the beginning of a major overhaul. Edwards moved Santana Moss, suddenly showing flashes of big-play abilities and averaging a gaudy 16.9 yards per catch, into the lineup at flanker. Wayne Chrebet was switched to split end and Curtis Conway -- who by unofficial count has eight drops in the first four games of the season and has made no one forget the departed Laveranues Coles -- was benched. There is more changes in coming weeks as Gang Green gets considerably greener and Edwards commits extended playing time to more youngsters. Linebackers Victor Hobson and Jason Glenn and cornerback Jamie Henderson figure to see more field time as the season wears on. Veterans like linebackers Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, safety Sam Garnes and perhaps cornerback Aaron Beasley will sacrifice playing time.
Come the offseason, the bloodletting will be in full swing, as the Jets will have to resign themselves to rebuilding through the draft. One veteran who probably won't be benched, not until Chad Pennington returns in early November, is quarterback Vinny Testaverde. As pointed out by several New York-area papers this week, Testaverde's contract has incentive clauses based on playing time, and which could increase his compensation for 2003 by as much as $3 million. The more realistic figure, based on the likelihood that Testaverde will take about half the snaps this season, is about $1.5 million. Edwards, a former player himself, is cognizant of what message might be gleaned in the locker room if he benches Testaverde before Pennington's return. Some veterans would certainly see such a move as management-mandated, a financial initiative, one meant to save money. Yeah, the Jets have lost games this year, but Edwards hasn't yet lost his players. He's too savvy to risk that by sitting Testaverde down, a move that would not be received well in some quarters, one that would cost the coach some respect.
First-round defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, the fourth overall player chosen in this year's draft and expected to immediately be a stud for the Jets, hasn't quite lived up yet to his press clippings. But as one astute Jets-watcher noted this week, the worst thing that happened to the former Kentucky star was the preseason suspension to New York tackle Josh Evans, who has applied for reinstatement but doesn't appear likely to return any time soon to the club. With Evans around, and fellow defensive tackle Jason Ferguson in the lineup, Robertson would have just been part of the three-man interior rotation. He would not be a starter and the pressure on him would be much less. As it is, Robertson does have 18 tackles, more than most defensive tackles in the league. He still doesn't use his hands well, stays engaged too long and isn't penetrating as well as he should. There are signs, though, that Robertson will be a player. Not so yet for the Jets' first-round choice in the 2001 draft, defensive end Bryan Thomas, who has yet to step up. In last week's game, with starter John Abraham slowed by a hamstring injury, Jets coaches bypassed Thomas, the top backup, and played tackle Chester McGlockton instead at end. That's a signal, for sure, that Thomas isn't ready for much more than spot or situational duty. By the way, McGlockton was victimized, by taking a poor lane, on a 31-yard touchdown romp by Dallas tailback Troy Hambrick. Kudos to McGlockton, who publicly accepted blame for the play, conceding he was out of position.
Forget all the talk that Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Porter, still recovering from double hernia surgery, was close to returning for this weekend's game against Chicago. The Raiders staff knows it can get past the Bears without Porter, the one player on the roster capable of stretching opposition defenses vertically, and will hold him out and not risk further damage. In fact, don't look for Porter until Oct. 20, a key Monday night home game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's only a month into the season, early to draw many conclusions, but this year might offer yet another example of why some franchises are reluctant to invest big money at the safety position. Tebucky Jones (New Orleans), Dexter Jackson (Arizona) and Corey Hall (Atlanta) all landed generous contracts this spring, either in free agency, or after being traded. The early returns: None has played very well. OK, so Jackson saved Arizona's lone victory of the season, intercepting a Brett Favre pass in the end zone in the upset win over the Packers, but he has hardly been a consistent playmaker. Hall has played in just one game for the Falcons because of injuries. Jones is now sidelined by a strained groin but, before being injured last week, had not been very effective at all for the Saints.
Word is that Mark Brunell, miffed by the treatment the Jacksonville Jaguars have afforded him after eight seasons with the club, hasn't exactly tried hard to cozy up to Byron Leftwich, his replacement. Brunell has even suggested to friends that, as much as he is bothered by his situation, he feels third-string quarterback David Garrard has been even more victimized. Garrard had a very good training camp, challenged Brunell for the starting job while Leftwich was out of camp in a contract dispute, and then was apprised hours before the season opener that he was being demoted to third on the depth chart.
The five-year contract extension signed by Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is worth $31.65 million in so-called "new money," ESPN.com has confirmed. That is a very healthy average of $6.33 million for the extension years. Jenkins received an initial signing bonus of just $1.5 million but is due a $5 million option bonus in March of 2004. The base salaries for the deal are $405,000 (2003), $455,000 (2004), $1.5 million (2005), $2.4 million (2006), $3 million (2007), $3.005 million (2008) and $3.9 million (2009). There was a workout bonus of $75,000 for '03 that was already included in Jenkins' initial contract and subsequent workout bonuses are set at $175,000 each for 2004-2009. There are roster bonuses of $2 million in 2004, $500,000 for 2005, and then $1 million each for 2008-2009. In the 2005-2009 seasons, there are reporting bonuses of $100,000 each. Jenkins will earn $8.57 more in 2003-2004 than he would have without the extension, had he just decided to play under his original contract, and then perhaps become a free agent after the '04 campaign.
The extension signed by Dallas defensive end Greg Ellis last week is for six years, not seven seasons, as reported by some media outlets. The sixth-year veteran was working in the final year of his contract and signed a deal that runs through the 2009 campaign. In terms of "new money," the extension is worth about $23.06 million. Ellis was slated to earn a base salary of $1.405 million and a $4,000 workout bonus this year. The extension provided him a $4.2 million signing bonus and the Cowboys also raised his base salary for this season to $2.741 million. The base salaries for the balance of the deal: $2 million (2004), $2.25 million (2005), $2.25 million (2006), $2.5 million (2007), $3.325 million (2008) and $4.15 million (2009). There are roster bonuses of $250,000 ('04), $300,000 ('05) and $500,000 ('06). The Cowboys view the contract, realistically, as a three-year deal at just less than $4 million annually or, at most, a four-year deal at about $3.6 million per season.
Given the nature of the beast, every expansion team needs a good punter, and the Houston Texans have one in Chad Stanley. The fifth-year veteran tied a league record in 2002 with 114 punts, and still averaged 41.4 yards gross and 36.8 yards yet. ESPN.com has confirmed that, on Thursday, the Texans signed Stanley to a four-year extension worth about $3 million. He had been working on a one-year contract at the restricted free agent qualifying tender of $605,000.
Punts: We've noted this once before but now it is picking up some momentum. Look for the Washington Redskins, within the next month, to make another foray toward signing cornerback Champ Bailey to a contract extension. If the move fails, the Redskins will use the "franchise" designation on Bailey, now in the final year of his contract, next spring. ... Opposition quarterbacks have just a 29.1 passer rating against the Tampa Bay Bucs and have completed only 50.5 percent of their attempts. "Hey, we're (upset) if we even allow a completion," said free safety Dwight Smith ... Minnesota coaches are thrilled over the play of linebacker Chris Claiborne, signed this spring as a free agent. The former Lions first-rounder was out of shape in 2002, but rededicated himself this spring, when he realized his value on the open market was blunted and his career was at a crossroads. Claiborne is moving better to the ball and he has been a key to the opportunistic bent the Vikings have demonstrated to date. ... There is a team or two that might inquire about the availability of Ron Dayne, buried on the Giants depth chart, before the Oct. 14 trade deadline. ... If the Chicago Bears are interested in LSU coach Nick Saban as a possible successor to Dick Jauron at year's end, they might have to hustle. Two other owners who might consider coaching changes after the season told ESPN.com this spring that Saban would be on their short list as well. ... The Titans are 3-1 and their backs are averaging a puny 2.1 yards per carry. Further indication of the brilliance of quarterback Steve McNair and the fact that 100-yard performance of Eddie George two weeks ago was probably just an aberration. ... Hard to believe but last week marked the first time that Tim Brown and Jerry Rice posted 100-yard outings in the same game. The two have combined for 117 games of 100 receiving yards. ... Just a personal observation: Those who contend that the Chiefs are playing the St. Louis offense even better than the Rams ever did, need to reconsider such an outlandish statement. Granted, the Chiefs are very good, and offensive coordinator Al Saunders has done a terrific job. But the Rams always got the ball downfield to wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, at least when they were hitting on all cylinders a couple years ago. Kansas City rarely throws the ball deep, and wideouts Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton don't strike fear into secondaries.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.