Eighty-eight points shy of becoming the leading scorer in NFL history, a goal Morten Andersen established for himself at the outset of his career, the 23rd-year veteran and Kansas City Chiefs incumbent is in a fierce battle to retain his job.
Only seven months after he completed a comeback campaign by contributing mightily as the New England Patriots claimed a second Super Bowl title in three seasons, cornerback Tyrone Poole is being pushed for his starting job by "nickel" back Asante Samuel. As a rookie, Wade Smith started all 16 games at left offensive tackle for Miami in 2003, but there were hints this week his hold on the No. 1 job is tenuous. In Chicago, the trade for Adewale Ogunleye means there is now just one opening at defensive end for Michael Haynes and Alex Brown, formerly the projected starters.
Those are just some of the mano a mano competitions remaining as preseason play enters the final two weeks and starting lineups begin to further galvanize. Sure, we are aware that, just before training camps commenced league wide, we authored a feature on the most intriguing intramural competitions. Truth be told, even a few of those have yet to be settled as the regular season nears.
But it seems that every summer -- because of injuries, defections, the emergence of one player or the decline of another -- competitions that weren't readily discernable when the camps opened are suddenly created. This summer, of course, is no different. Who, after all, could have predicted that Andersen, a future Hall of Fame player and arguably the greatest clutch kicker in league history, might be ousted?
Of all the camp-created competitions, his battle with the former CFL and NFL Europe League kicker Lawrence Tynes might be the most compelling, given that Andersen is poised on the brink of history. With just 20 field goals and 88 points, Andersen will supplant the retired Gary Anderson as the career leader in both categories, but there is some question about whether he will get the chance to break the records because Tynes is pushing him hard and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil isn't inclined to retain both kickers.
At times in camp, frankly, Vermeil has sounded an ominous caution when addressing Andersen's future with the club.
"He's done it often," Vermeil said. "But even if he's done it a lot, if he can't do it anymore, it's not good enough. I think he's doing a good job right now, so maybe he is going to keep doing it."
It isn't as if either kicker has gotten many chances in game action. Entering Saturday's preseason contest against Cleveland, both men have converted their only field goal chances. There are indications, however, that Tynes has demonstrated the stronger leg in camp, especially on kickoffs. And for a coach as keen on special teams play as Vermeil is, that might make a difference.
This is the third time that Tynes is in camp with the Chiefs, having been bested by Todd Peterson on the first occasion in 2001 and by the ageless Andersen a year later. But after adding weight and leg strength, he converted 71 of 87 field goal tries during two seasons with the Ottawa Renegades, and knocked in nine of 12 attempts from 40 yards or more with the Scottish Claymores in the spring of 2002. About 15 NFL teams phoned him this spring about coming to camp, but he opted for a third shot with the Chiefs.
And he is making the roster decision tough for Vermeil, who must choose between a guy with a league-record 31 game-winning field goals and a 26-year-old youngster who has never lined up for a big kick in a regular-season game.
Noted Vermeil: "We all know Lawrence Tynes kicks off better, so that's an advantage, but it still comes down to this: Can he make the 48-yarder with no time left on the clock? That's what it comes down to. We might have to make that decision based on judgment rather than actual experience."
Now here's a look at a few more close calls in camp-created competitions:
New England, right cornerback: Only two years after sitting out the 2001 season, Poole revived his career in 2003, starting all 16 games opposite Ty Law. His six interceptions not only established a career high, but also represented as many pickoffs as the former first-rounder (Carolina, 1995) had in the previous five seasons. But Samuel is a talented ballhawk, who had two interceptions as a "nickel" defender in 2003, and he has enjoyed a tremendous sophomore training camp.
Atlanta, backup quarterback: Last season's injury to Michael Vick demonstrated pretty graphically the need for a solid backup, especially when you have a starter who will throw himself into harm's way as often as the Falcons star does. For now, venerable Ty Detmer remains second on the depth chart, but third-round rookie Matt Schaub has been terrific in preseason play. The former Virginia star operated in an offense similar to that being implemented in Atlanta, and could claim the No. 2 spot.
Tampa Bay, left offensive tackle: The starting spot on the allegedly revamped Bucs offensive line was supposed to belong to Derrick Deese. But the former San Francisco starter and 12-year veteran has been laid up much of camp by injuries (as have most of the linemen the Bucs signed in the offseason), and recently underwent foot surgery. Enter Anthony Davis, an undrafted free agent from Virginia Tech, who spent much of 2003 on the Tampa Bay practice squad, but who has been a revelation in camp.
Chicago, right defensive end: Haynes and Brown were both slated to start but that was before last weekend's blockbuster trade for Ogunleye, who immediately moves into the left end spot. Every team needs at least three ends, so Brown and Haynes will both log plenty of playing time. But which of them starts at right end now? Brown, who led the Bears' woeful pass rush in 2003 with a modest 5½ sacks probably has the edge, but no decision has been made yet.
Jacksonville, strong-side linebacker: The Jaguars signed a pair of veteran free agents, Greg Favors and Tommy Hendricks, in the offseason to man the position. Well, that's not exactly true. Favors, who started 12 games for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers in '03, was slated to be the starter. Hendricks, a career special teams player from Miami, was signed for depth. But in camp, Hendricks has demonstrated he might be something more than just a spare part.
Buffalo, left guard: Third-year veteran Mike Pucillo, a blue-collar guy with a superb work ethic, won the job in the offseason. But then he proved susceptible to the bull-rush in a scrimmage and the first preseason game, and suddenly Lawrence Smith, who has been a bit of a football nomad, began coming on. New line coach Jim McNally is famous for turning afterthoughts like Smith into players and, for now, the unheralded lineman is running with the first-unit offense.
Miami, left offensive tackle: This wasn't supposed to happen. But second-year pro Wade Smith has been so inconsistent in camp that, despite starting all 16 games in 2003 as a rookie, he could lose his No. 1 spot to a guy who hasn't practiced all spring. Veteran free agent Damion McIntosh, a three-year starter in San Diego, was damaged goods when the Dolphins signed him this spring. But he is back now from foot surgery and, despite just limited practice time, is already pushing Smith for the starting job.
Carolina, free safety: When camp began, second-year pro Colin Branch was running with the first team in the spot once manned by Deon Grant, who departed in free agency. It's not that Branch played poorly, but Travares Tillman, who has always had skills and instincts, but suffered through injuries and inconsistency, has really come on. For now, it's Tillman with the slight edge.
Minnesota, left defensive end: This may be only a temporary situation, but someone has to claim the starting job while Kenny Mixon serves a two-game suspension at the outset of the season for a violation of the league's alcohol abuse policy. Veteran Chuck Wiley would seem the most obvious candidate. But don't count out rookie Darrion Scott, a third-round choice from Ohio State, who has proven to be a very good two-way defender so far in camp.
Miami, free safety: Four-year veteran Arturo Freeman, who started 16 games in 2002 and then zero last year, has said he will be "shocked" if he doesn't win the job. The guy trying to shock him is former Green Bay first-round pick Antuan Edwards, signed this spring as a free agent, and perhaps proving to be more than just a "nickel" guy.
Around the league
Amid some of the chest-thumping being done by San Diego officials about holding the line on the Philip Rivers contract, this pertinent item got lost in the rhetoric: More than half of the six-year, $41 million deal for the quarterback is paid out in signing bonus and other guaranteed money. Rivers got an initial signing bonus of $7.65 million. On Sept. 1, he will receive a $1.075 million roster bonus. Next March, there is an option bonus of $6.625 million due. Then there is a one-time bonus of $2.375 million that can (will) be earned for minimum playing time. And the so-called "buy-back" bonus, which allows the club to reinstate voided years, is $4.875 million. On our calculator, that totals a whopping $22.6 million. And that doesn't include a relatively paltry one-time bonus of $500,000 that is based on passing yards. So while the Chargers can contend that they refused to break in the lengthy negotiations, there is no denying Rivers and agent Jimmy Sexton broke the bank in terms of guaranteed money. One positive for the Chargers: Despite missing 25 days of camp, 29 practice sessions and two preseason games, there remains a chance that Rivers could still claim the starting job for the opening game. Sure, most people feel that his long training camp absence meant the rookie year for the former North Carolina State star might be a wipeout. But word from San Diego is that the Chargers staff still wants Rivers to be the guy, the sooner the better, and that he could wrest the No. 1 job from Drew Brees if he performs well in the final two preseason contests. That message was being leaked even during the holdout, and staffers made it no secret to Rivers, as they took him through a cram course the last few days.
There is still considerable work to be done but it will surprise no one if the New York Jets and quarterback Chad Pennington beat the alleged Sept. 1 deadline for a contract extension. The talks have definitely picked up in recent days, with representatives from IMG Football visiting with Jets assistant general manager and cap ace Mike Tannenbaum twice in the past 10 days, and both sides seem motivated. Of course, agents Tom Condon and Ken Kremer are shooting for another $20 million signing bonus/guaranteed money package (actually, we hear the target figure is $21 million) and the Jets want to try to keep the guaranteed level at about $15 million. There is a lot of mutual respect between the men negotiating the deal. The Jets desperately need to retain Pennington, and without the acrimony that a "franchise" tag normally entails. And the quarterback has said he will not bargain beyond Sept. 1. Sounds like the formula for an accord, perhaps as early as this weekend but more likely by next week.
Another season and, it appears, another year in which the Green Bay Packers have failed to locate an upgrade over backup quarterback Doug Pederson. That the journeyman 12th-year veteran would retain his spot as Brett Favre's caddy has been apparent in camp, as Tim Couch has struggled both physically and with the system. But there is this element as well: Green Bay coaches are increasingly concerned about the sore arm that has plagued Couch in camp and preseason play. The Packers are dealing with a real conundrum here. They really need Couch to get practice "reps," so that he becomes more comfortable in the offense. But if they push the former Cleveland starter too hard, it is likely to only aggravate his arm problems. Word is that Couch, who suffered through elbow woes with the Browns, is having pain in a different area this time. Some insist the problem actually goes back to his college career at Kentucky. Whatever the genesis of the arm problems, however, they are very real and mean that Couch isn't going to be elevated to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart anytime soon. There are even some whispers that the $625,000 investment Green Bay made in Couch as a signing bonus might not keep the Packers from releasing the first overall player chosen in the 1999 draft if the team determines he can't be effective in 2004. All of which means that Pederson is safe again.
San Francisco linebacker Julian Peterson reported to camp on Wednesday. Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson has promised to rejoin the Raiders early next week. So who is the next "franchise" player to end his holdout and sign the one-year qualifying offer he could have signed five months ago? Well, we're hearing it could be Baltimore standout cornerback Chris McAlister, arguably the game's best "shut down" defender, who sources claim will be back with the Ravens by Sunday and practicing a day or two later. If that is the case, it would leave two franchise players, offensive tackle Orlando Pace of St. Louis and Seattle's Walter Jones, still out of camp. This is old hat for Jones, who displayed in each of the last two years that he won't crack, so he could be the last to report.
The ol' "Tip Sheet" was on hiatus during our training camp trek but, while the whole Buffalo Bills tailback story is old news, we can't help take a look back at a situation that was (and remains) much ado about absolutely nothing. Why Travis Henry had to spout off about the possibility of losing his starting job to Willis McGahee is insane. Unless Henry is still rehabbing from the rib injury he suffered last week (which came after his public rant about wanting to be traded if he dropped to No. 2 on the depth chart), he is going to be the Bills' starter for 2004. The guy ought to listen to top Buffalo officials, who admire his toughness and productivity, instead of being so insecure as to create ghosts where there really are none. The Bills honestly feel that McGahee still isn't 100 percent recovered from his catastrophic knee surgery, and won't be until sometime around October. Henry is their guy and McGahee, who is still misreading some holes, will get "touches" as the backup. But once Henry went public with his conjured-up hysterics, the McGahee camp felt compelled to answer back. The so-called "source close to McGahee," who hinted that the former Miami star had requested a trade if not the opening day starter was, of course, agent Drew Rosenhaus. Unlike a lot of league people, we love Rosenhaus, and not just because he has always shot straight with us. Nope, the guy does his job, and sees part of that job as getting McGahee into the most advantageous position possible. Think part of the rationale in airing the McGahee trade story wasn't aimed at maybe trying to get the former University of Miami star dealt to the tailback-needy Dolphins? So we've got no quibble with the McGahee camp, other than the fact there really has been no demand for a trade. McGahee's day will come. Probably by 2005. If he demonstrates to the Bills that he is whole again, one of the two backs will be trade bait for next season, as general manager Tom Donahoe tries to recoup a high-round pick to compensate for the No. 1 choice in '05 that he spent this year to get quarterback J.P. Losman. But as for immediate impact, all the rhetoric did was spawn senseless stories for some media outlets desperate for a story.
Ricky Williams ought to save everyone a headache and simply expunge the phone numbers of all Miami Dolphins officials -- owner Wayne Huizenga, general manager Rick Spielman, coach Dave Wannstedt -- from his Palm Pilot. Assuming, that is, that a guy who has allegedly embraced a third world country lifestyle hasn't hawked his PDR for a doobie. But, hey, Ricky, don't lose this number as you traipse around India in coming daze: 387.5. That's the average number of carries Williams logged in his two-year stint with the Dolphins. And why is that so important? Because in one of their spin-mode rationalizations explaining Williams' exit from the NFL, both the running back and agent Leigh Steinberg suggested Williams might consider returning to the league to play for the Oakland Raiders. Uh, those are the same Raiders who now employ Norv Turner as head coach. And that's the same Turner who called the plays in Miami as offensive coordinator, and who was most responsible for Williams getting 383 carries in 2002 and 392 attempts in 2003. Seems that when they were simply trying to say the most expedient thing that occurred to them at the time, Williams and Steinberg conveniently forgot it was Turner who overworked the weirdo tailback. One of the great misconceptions of the past 15 years or so is that Turner is a passing-game junkie, a guy who wants to air it out every week. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Turner loves the power running game, and the numbers reinforce that. In 13 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach Turner's "lead' back has averaged 306.5 rushing attempts per year. And that's counting two seasons -- 1994 and 1998 in Washington -- when top backs Ricky Ervins and Terry Allen got just 185 and 148 carries, respectively. In eight different seasons, Turner's lead tailback logged 325 carries or more. So if Williams wanted a softer workload, and Steinberg was suggesting his ganja-crazed client was tired of the workhorse role, they certainly were off-kilter in tossing out the Raiders as a possibility for future employment.
It's not official yet but sources keep telling us that Kansas City Chiefs starting middle linebacker Mike Maslowski will miss the entire 2004 season because of the left knee injury that sidelined him for the final six games last year. If that's the case, it is a major loss for new coordinator Gunther Cunningham, whose goal is to always stop the run first. Maslowski is a far better player than people know nationally. His likely replacement is fourth-year veteran Monty Beisel, who has pretty much been a career special teams guy. Beisel has appeared in 44 games, but only 27 of those have included scrimmage snaps, and he has zero career starts.
Maybe 14-year veteran kicker Steve Christie will solve the placement problems being experienced in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars had converted just one of six field goal attempts entering this weekend. If he doesn't, don't be surprised to see the Jaguars make a play for the loser of the competition in Dallas between incumbent Billy Cundiff and his challenger, Matt Bryant, formerly of the New York Giants. There had been some casual discussions between the two teams before Christie on Thursday signed a one-year deal to challenge Jags rookie Josh Scobee for the job. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells isn't inclined to just release a player when he feels he can get anything, even a low-round pick for him, so trading one of the kickers is a very live option. Witness the swap of offensive tackle Javiar Collins, no better than No. 3 on the Cowboys' depth chart, to the desperate Carolina Panthers in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. Had Carolina waited another week, they probably could have gotten Collins on waivers, but their line is so decimated, they couldn't delay and made the trade instead. Whoever isn't kicking in Dallas this season figures to land somewhere in the league, and Parcells figures to get a draft choice in return.
Punts: The Ravens are moving closer to a new contract for left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and it figures to be a blockbuster deal. Ogden got a $16 million signing bonus as part of the contract he signed in 2000 and there are whispers he has already rejected an $18 million bonus in the current negotiations. Cincinnati right offensive tackle Willie Anderson is seeking an extension and Minnesota right tackle Mike Rosenthal could also extend his contract. The unproven Qasim Mitchell hasn't really wowed anyone at left offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, but has played well enough that the team has no plans to move big-money right tackle John Tait to the weak-side spot. San Francisco has until Sept. 1 to determine if it will retain defensive end Brandon Whiting, who was part of the three-team trade that sent Terrell Owens to Philadelphia, or return him to the Eagles because of a 2003 shoulder injury. No hint yet as to how the 49ers are leaning. Forget the rumors about the Steelers releasing or trading Jerome Bettis. Even with the 106-yard performance by rookie tailback Willie Parker on Friday night, the Steelers can't afford to move Bettis because of salary cap implications. And the Rooney family is too loyal to cut a guy who took a $2 million salary reduction this spring.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.