In a bit of a surprise, only four of the top 10 teams in the league in rushing offense are currently either in or tied for first place in their divisions, a dramatic reduction from the past few seasons. And just three of the NFL's top 10 individual rushers play for clubs currently holding first-place perches.
But based on discussions over the past week with several NFL general managers, talks that revolved around looking forward to offseason personnel priorities, this disconnect between the running game and overall success is largely regarded as an aberration. The prevailing wisdom is that you still win by running the football -- the record for teams that have rushed 30 or more times in games through the first 12 weeks of the 2003 campaign is 119-30 -- and that's why several teams will be ardently seeking to really upgrade their backfields after this season.
"The one position you always want to have (secured) is quarterback," acknowledged one NFC general manager. "But I'd say running back is right up there, too, and there seems to be a lot of uncertainty at the position as you look ahead to 2004. There are a ton of teams unsettled at tailback. I would guess, being kind of conservative, that about one-third of the teams don't know who they will start next year. That position definitely is going to be a very big priority around the league."
No team figures to be more aggressive in rectifying its tailback situation than the Dallas Cowboys, where coach Bill Parcells almost certainly won't go into a second season with Troy Hambrick as the starter, and will do just about whatever it takes to land a quality runner.
The Cowboys targeted Domanick Davis of LSU in the fourth round of this year's draft, but the Houston Texans snatched him two spots ahead of Dallas' spot, and he is the league's leading rookie rusher. The Cowboys tried early in the season to deal for Rudi Johnson of Cincinnati, before Corey Dillon was injured and he was still sitting on the bench, but the Bengals rejected their overtures. But bet the mortgage that Parcells and owner Jerry Jones won't fail, during the offseason, to land a viable tailback who can pound the ball at defenses and permit the Cowboys coach to further impose his style on a team that already is a year ahead of schedule.
Lay a wager, too, that the Cowboys won't be the lone team in pursuit of tailback help.
The Detroit Lions have go get some running game help for Joey Harrington, or their young quarterback could continue to regress, as he has in some areas this year. Oakland needs some new blood at the position and, with Tom Brady emerging now as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, imagine how much better the New England offense could be if the Patriots land a top-shelf runner.
The Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Bucs must galvanize the tailback position. Tennessee could be in that group as well, depending on the future of Eddie George, whose contract now greatly outdistances his production.
Of course, the problem for any team seeking to upgrade at tailback is that there are not many standout veterans who will be in the free agent pool, and the strength of the position in the draft probably won't be discernable until the underclass prospects commit. This is not, as it currently stacks up, a particularly strong senior assemblage of tailbacks. As for the veterans, Duce Staley of Philadelphia could be the best of a dubious crop, and some team might have to overpay to land the former Eagles starter.
Around the league
The spin from Carolina Panthers coaches is that second-year defensive end Julius Peppers is having a solid season, playing hard, and that his reduced sack total over a year ago should not be considered indicative of his performance through 11 games. At least that's the public party line. Truth be told, some Panthers staffers are concerned with Peppers, who is accumulating quarterback "hurries," but has just three sacks, and is not closing to the passer as he did in 2002. Some observers point out that Peppers has been double-teamed more this year, and that has presented more sack opportunities for right end Michael Rucker, who is among the league leaders. But tape review indicates that, at least in the past month, Peppers hasn't been double-teamed significantly. In last week's loss at Dallas, in fact, he was stymied for much of the game by rookie Torrin Tucker, the Cowboys' No. 3 right tackle. An undrafted free agent, Tucker was so effective that he was cheered by his teammates in an emotional post-game locker room, and coach Bill Parcells awarded him a game ball. Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games in 2002, before he was suspended for the final month by the league after he tested positive for a banned substance. Peppers' self-stated goal this season was to demonstrate to the skeptics that it was his raw ability, and not some chemically-enhanced skill level, that netted those 12 sacks last season. After an offseason in the weight room, in which he bulked up to nearly 300 pounds and seemingly sacrificed none of his quickness, Peppers seemed prepared for a big year. He has gone through two separate four-game streaks with no sacks, though, and too often doesn't get penetration into the backfield. The Panthers keep waiting for Peppers to have a big breakout game, where he gets two or three sacks and blisters an opposing right tackle. But it hasn't happened yet and, in Sunday's game in Charlotte, he faces a quality opponent in Philadelphia's Jon Runyan.
Washington coach Steve Spurrier reclaimed the play-calling duties last week from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but one has to wonder if "The Ol' Ball Coach" did his team much good in that regard. During a recent practice, some Redskins players told ESPN.com that Spurrier struggled to get through the offensive script for the day. And then in last Sunday night's loss at Miami, the players said, Spurrier called at least four plays that were not included in the game plan. It didn't make things easier, for sure, for youngster Tim Hasselbeck, who had relieved injured starting quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Perhaps the most notable strength of Spurrier was not only in his offensive blueprint, but also in directing the in-game action like some football maestro. Maybe last week was simply an aberration. But if Spurrier is to pass muster in the NFL -- and, as one-time true believers, we are now starting to waffle on whether he will succeed at this level -- he has to play to his strengths. And last week, at least, his strengths were transformed into shortcomings.
No matter how the Redskins keep pitching the notion that Ramsey might still be able to play against the Saints on Sunday, forget about it. Tim Hasselbeck will get his first regular-season start, becoming the 50th starter leaguewide this season, and the team will sign seventh-round draft pick Gibran Hamdan from the practice squad to serve as his backup. The way we hear it, the battered Ramsey will have his foot in a cast for at least two weeks, and then will determine whether to shut things down for the year. The fiery Ramsey, who has gained the respect of teammates and opponents alike in his first season as a starter, definitely wants to come back for the final few games. But if his foot doesn't show progress in the next fortnight, he's probably done for 2003. By the way, the Redskins were impressed with Hasselbeck's arm strength from the first day they worked him out, and his stint against the Dolphins last week reinforced their beliefs that he can be a viable No. 2 for them in 2004.
If you don't believe the NFL has evolved into the ultimate coach's league, replacing the NBA in that category, then consider this: Over the past week, ESPN.com queried 14 head coaches, general managers and personnel directors about coach of the year candidates. And the group named eight possibilities, with no one really getting a lion's share of the citations. Those named by our group: Bill Belichick (New England), Jeff Fisher (Tennessee), John Fox (Carolina), Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Bill Parcells (Dallas), Andy Reid (Philadelphia), Mike Tice (Minnesota) and Dick Vermeil (Kansas City). Said one prominent general manager: "Forget draft picks, free agents, anything else. Without doubt, the most important decision you have to make anymore is on your head coach, and it's not even close. That's the most critical thing, having the right guy, and being able to keep him around long enough to get his (plan) in place."
It won't sit well with some league officials if Green Bay running backs aide Sylvester Croom, as anticipated, is named head coach at Mississippi State, replacing the retiring Jackie Sherrill, in the next few days. With LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher removing himself from consideration for the job, the classy Croom, who nearly landed the Alabama job this spring, is the overwhelming favorite. So why should NFL officials be all that interested in Croom departing to become the first African-American coach in SEC history? Because the longtime NFL assistant, who also played briefly in the league, never merited more than a sniff for job openings at the pro level. In a league that is now hypersensitive about the lack of coaching opportunities for minorities, Croom, who is good enough to have been considered now for two high-profile college jobs, seemed to be perennially overlooked as a worthy NFL candidate.
Plenty of eyeballs will be focused on Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning in the opening snaps of Sunday's game against New England. When the Colts star felt a slight "twinge" in his right elbow during Wednesday's practice, and then took the precautionary measure of heading out for an MRI exam, a lot of people in Indianapolis and other NFL precincts held their collective breaths. Even though the MRI revealed no damage -- at least that's the word from Colts officials, who have a history of fudging on such things (see: Edgerrin James and Tarik Glenn) -- no one will exhale until the iron man Manning demonstrates he can gun the ball into the small spaces in the Patriots secondary. Of course, like any quarterback facing the Pats, the biggest test for the brilliant Manning, who studies more tape than just about any of his peers, will be deciphering whatever coverage packages New England coach Bill Belichick has conjured up for this critical AFC contest. Manning is 4-4 versus Belichick-designed defenses but his performances in those meetings have been a somewhat mixed bag. Manning has completed 177 of 296 in those eight games, for 2,010 yards, with 11 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. His passer rating against Belichick is 74.4, while it's 88.5 versus everyone else.
In other news from the NFL's most prolific quarterback family tree, it's now obvious that little brother Eli Manning of Mississippi will be the first quarterback selected in the 2004 draft. But could he be, as was Peyton in 1998, the first player chosen overall? Well, given the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the NFL and the needs of so many teams, it would seem so. But there is an interesting scenario setting up at the top of the draft. With five weeks remaining in the season, three teams are tied for the league's worst record, at 2-9. But all three -- Atlanta, Jacksonville and San Diego -- have used high-round picks in the last three years to choose well-regarded quarterbacks. There is no way, with a Byron Leftwich on hand, that the Jaguars would choose the latest star in the Manning galaxy. Ditto the Atlanta Falcons with Michael Vick. Things aren't as obvious in San Diego, where Drew Brees has been benched, and where the Chargers are likely to have a new coach (and, perhaps, a new general manager, too) in 2004. If the current standings hold, it could set up some intriguing trade possibilities, with teams queuing up next spring in an effort to deal up for the first overall choice. As for the commentators who suggested in Thursday night's Egg Bowl game that Eli Manning has superior arm strength to that of his elder sibling, well, they were jumping on an old fallacy. There used to be rampant criticism of Peyton's zip-ability. But watch the guy and you realize that, while he may not have a howitzer, his arm is plenty strong enough. The ball doesn't just get there by osmosis, folks, and Eli's arm appears about the same caliber as that of his brother.
Despite several rough spots for Jack Del Rio in his inaugural season as an NFL head coach, the young Jacksonville Jaguars are beginning to show signs of progress, playing opponents tough even though they have no playoff chance. Chalk some of that up to Del Rio and much of it to the maturation process that typically takes place with a young squad in the second half of a season. That said, Del Rio continues to undergo an often painful process of on-the-job training, and the latest example came this week. Del Rio strongly suggested that, with the offense sputtering a bit, he might make a switch at the quarterback position. Indeed, most players expected Del Rio to sit Leftwich for a week or two and give second-year veteran David Garrard a couple starts. But no sooner had the suggestion passed his lips than Del Rio backtracked, sticking with the status quo, but leaving both quarterbacks more than a little puzzled. Like his team, Del Rio has made strides as the season wears on. But if he wants to take the next step, Del Rio will have to improve his communications skills in 2004. Even young players -- and Del Rio should realize this having labored in the league so many years -- don't appreciate having mind games played on them. Oh, yeah, look for Del Rio to make some changes on his coaching staff after the season. Nothing wholesale, mind you, just some tweaking.
It can't be characterized yet as a groundswell but, in discussions with personnel men over identifying viable candidates for most valuable player honors in 2003, the name of St. Louis wide receiver Torry Holt is being raised with continuing frequency. Certainly the favorites remain quarterbacks Steve McNair of Tennessee and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, but Holt might be closing the gap a bit. It's gone virtually unnoticed, but the Rams' star is on pace now for 1,869 receiving yards, which would break the NFL record of 1,848 yards, set by Jerry Rice in 1995. Holt has five games of 120-plus yards and has scored in eight of 11 outings. The five-year veteran sometimes is underappreciated, since he plays with Isaac Bruce, and some observers feel the Mike Martz passing design is so sophisticated that it provides both receivers ample separation. But watch Holt on tape sometime and you realize that few receivers in the league run patterns more aggressively than him. More quick than fast, Holt explodes out of routes because he runs everything hard, even if the ball isn't coming to him. "He gets on top of you as quickly as any (wide receiver) out there," said Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan. "He's precise in everything he does." Holt is also among the NFL leaders over the past four years in yards after the catch and, this season, he seems to author a big play virtually every week. One more item on the Rams and their passing game: Martz, who has been airing his grievances over the officiating with more ardor of late, feels that quarterback Marc Bulger has suffered from the zebras allowing St. Louis receivers to be roughed up a bit. Bulger has thrown 10 interceptions in the last four games and Rams coaches feel at least three of them came on plays where there should have been flags.
Over the last few years, NFL-watchers have been mighty fond of noting how some head coaches have staffs that produce guys who move on to top sideline jobs themselves. For instance, the solid Mike Holmgren staffs in Green Bay and Seattle eventually begat Steve Mariucci and Andy Reid and Mike Sherman. The staffs of Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells were fertile breeding grounds for future head coaches. We mention this because, over the next two or three seasons, there are going to be a number of NFL head coaches gleaned from Bill Belichick staffs. A pair of college coaches who will soon be in the league, Nick Saban of LSU and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, were assistants on Belichick's staff in Cleveland. And his current coordinators, Charlie Weis (offense) and Romeo Crennel (defense), may be on short-lists for NFL openings after this season. Maybe it's because he doesn't cozy up to the media as much as some of his colleagues do, but Belichick never seems to get the credit due him, although he has emerged the past few years as the consummate head coach. But when his coaching family tree sprouts a few more limbs, perhaps the skeptics will better understand how good Belichick is, and how he has surrounded himself with very capable people.
On the belief, by many, that Nick Saban is itching to bolt Baton Rouge and return to the pro ranks: Perhaps more than any of the other college coaches mentioned as potential NFL candidates for 2003, Saban will have more options, with at least three teams that we know already considering him as they draw up shorts lists. But finances are always a factor and, while Saban has virtually no buyout entanglements, it is going to take a hefty package to land his services. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants are often cited as franchises that could be interested in Saban as their next head coach. But check out the financial history of head coaches in both those precincts, as we have, and you wonder if either of those fairly conservative teams will pay the $3 million or more annually it might take to get Saban onboard. The suspicion around the league is that neither team is ready to raise the ante significantly over what they are paying their current coaches, Jim Fassel in New York (about $2.7 million-$2.8 million), and Chicago's Dick Jauron (roughly $2.2 million). The one owner for whom money probably won't be an issue is Arthur Blank of Atlanta. But some people close to Saban note that the LSU coach has looked at the club's history and wondered why no coach has ever been able to win with the Falcons.
We're not often right on some of our player evaluation so, when we get lucky and hit on one, it bears reminding. The performance of Detroit cornerback Dre' Bly on Thanksgiving -- with two interceptions, three passes defensed and three tackles -- further demonstrates that he was one of the top acquisitions in free agency this year. Sure, the Lions typically overpaid, giving him a $6.5 million signing bonus. But Bly has rare hands, good cover skills, selective amnesia, and a big-play mentality. He now has six interceptions, the second most among league cornerbacks. Despite missing time with a hamstring injury, Bly definitely deserves Pro Bowl consideration.
Contrary to published reports, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice has never asked owner Red McCombs for a contract extension. Believed to be the NFL's lowest-paid head coach, Tice certainly deserves a bump, but this is one smart guy. He knows that timing is everything and, for now, the time for approaching McCombs isn't yet optimum. There will be a time, for sure, when Tice and his representatives sit down with McCombs. But reports aside, that time hasn't yet arrived.
If you are the Buffalo Bills, you've got to be concerned with the physical condition of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who is suffering from post-concussion symptoms, and whose performance has taken a typical second-half nosedive. It has become a perennial story for Bledsoe, who gets beaten up in the first half of most every campaign, and then limps through the final two months of the season. Since 1996, Bledsoe has posted a record of 32-24 in the first half of the year. That does not account for 2001, when he was injured after two contests, gave way to Tom Brady, and didn't see action in another regular-season game. His record in the second half of those seasons is 22-27. He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7 this year and, while some attribute his performance to the watered-down nature of the Buffalo offense, others see it as physical erosion.
He is an easy target but, as last Monday's performance against the New York Giants demonstrated, don't ever overlook a big player like Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp in a big game. Sapp dominated against the Giants, with two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, four tackles, and three drawn penalties, including an intentional grounding flag. The popular perception is that Sapp is in decline, that there won't be many suitors for him if he becomes an unrestricted free agent, that it will be difficult for the nine-year veteran and agent Drew Rosenhaus to command a big-dollar deal. Maybe so. But any personnel guy who puts on tape of Monday night's game figures to be intrigued by what Sapp can still bring to the table when he is motivated. Guys like Sapp, and some other veteran leaders on the Tampa Bay roster, make it impossible at this point to just completely write off the Bucs as playoff contenders. This is a team with enough prideful guys, and with a relatively cushy schedule, to still run the table and finish 10-6. So don't discount the Bucs yet. And don't, off Monday night, dismiss Sapp as a player who will merit a surprising amount of interest next spring in free agency.
Punts: One college guy whose name emerged this week in discussions about campus coaches who could be potential NFL candidates at the end of the season was Glen Mason of the University of Minnesota. ... Fred Beasley of San Francisco is arguably the top fullback in the NFC, and should win Pro Bowl honors, but not to be overlooked (although he almost always gets shunned) is Seattle's Mack Strong, quietly enjoying another very good year. ... Never exactly bosom buddies when they worked together, Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell and former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin recently dined together to mend some broken fences. Coughlin likely will be back in the league in '04, and is certainly laying the groundwork for his return, and Brunell will be in the free agent market. ... The Bengals are the only team in the NFL that has not placed a player on injured reserve since the beginning of the regular season. ... Denver linebacker John Mobley, a good guy and terrific player, recently learned he will not require surgery to repair the spinal problem that prematurely ended this season. Word is that Mobley can resume workouts early next month. ... Lions officials conceded this week that it is now likely that wide receiver Charles Rogers, the club's first-round draft pick, will miss the rest of the season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.