|The Year of the Dragger|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Where were you when the lights went out?
Probably playing corner, safety, nickel or dime in the NFL.
Smell that? That's fear. Okay, you may not smell it right now, but six weeks from now, as a sea change begins to tilt the league, you will. A bunch of good, fast receivers are about to get their baptism of fire in the NFL. At first they'll be the ones getting dragged; they'll blow routes, get blown up, etc. But when they get their legs under them (and stop calling people "homo") they'll make some young, coltish quarterbacks (and maybe some long Super Bowl odds) look mighty meaty.
The 'Draggers' refers to the ability of these rookies and second-year men to "drag" patterns crossfield, also upfield, diagonally, at fearsome rates of speeds. And they'll wind up dragging many defenders behind them in their wake because after Champie Bailey and Wood, the cornerbacks are mostly all overmatched for the moment, as far as I'm concerned, as good as these young fellows at WR project.
There is one in particular who, in the end, may shift the balance of NFC power and help his team go through the back door to the Super Bowl. No, not Shockey. Not quite yet. He hasn't even made his guest shot on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" yet.
Who will it be, then? Patience, pilgrims. Patience.
They'll get dinged, nicked, broken up during their apprenticeship. But eventually, they'll explode, like Jerry Porter in Oaktown is ready to go Ka-Pow! And maybe the Brian Bo-Replicant creature in K.C., or Koren the SeaDog Robinson, too. There's a bunch of these young hotshot wides, from the Class of 2003 especially.
So call them the Draggers. Or the Drug. Like the Borg. And this, in the end, will be remembered as theirs, the Year of the Drag-Ons.
Besides Charles Rogers, there's Andre Johnson, who struck me as being the best offensive player on the Miami squad that won the national title two seasons ago. He's 4.3 carrying two bricks in his pockets and two more in his hands; he's got the kind of thick body with the tensile strength of aluminum that will hold up once DBs test him physically. Once they see they can't cover you, their next option is to bust you up. And if they see you don't like that, then that's all you get, from then on. The only fear with Andre is there isn't anybody in Houston to let him know how the game goes. But yes Dave Carr, there's life after absorbing the all-time sack record.
It's deeper than that, one or two guys. Besides Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson, there's Tyrone Calico, whose giddyup we briefly mentioned in the AFC preview last week. Now with these three, it's just as much who is throwing to them as it is their own talents.
These guys are going to city-states where there are no primo No. 1 type WRs, yet to towns where cannon-armed QBs lurk who make Brad Johnson look like a doorman -- unless you think Harrington, Carr and Stevie McNair are punk frauds. If so -- you're dismissed.
The returns on Rogers, Johnson and Calico should be good, as long as they can stand up physically to being on the same field where large, helmeted beings are whizzing about with the sort of bad intentions that make Mike Tyson look like Pluto, dog or Nash.
Taylor Jacobs, taken by the Redskins, is tricky, deceptive, a Guile guy, a No. 2, with great body control, who knows how to get open and understands pace within routes. Accelerates into cuts, and accelerates out of cuts, doesn't chop up his steps. Smooth.
Why do we talk about No. 1 guys and No. 2 guys? Because there's a pecking order to playing outside. That's the way it is and that's the way it's always been; you can't make a No. 2 guy a No. 1 guy. Alvin Harper was a No. 2 guy. When the defense doubled Michael Irvin, a No. 1, the No. 2 guy had a field day. But when a No. 2 guy signs a No. 1-guy contract, as Harper did with Tampa Bay some years back, he then disappears as if he had run a route straight into the Bermuda Triangle, and nobody should be surprised.
Know your role, Jabroni. Or at least know the roles of your wides.
Jacobs is the most polished for now. But he's a 2. Jury's out on Cincy's Killa Kelli Washington -- if he can take the heat physically and overcome being a legend in his own mind, he can be a No. 1. Bought his own hype, which you cannot do in this league. There's also a little blur from Arizona State named McDonald, who the St. Louis Lamb Chops hope will help them forget the underrated slot work of the late lamented Az Hakim and Ricky Pronghorn Proehl.
We're also on the record with Teyo Johnson, listed at tight end, but the Raiders are already beginning to drag him across the formation in pre-snap motion, freeing him up from the rigors of scrimmage line play, running him on drag routes across the face of the DBs.
Big T is star. Book that one, pilgrims, in the Year of the Dragger.
Shockey is in play too, big time. Yeah, he scored two touchdowns last year. Put him down for quadruple or quintuple that this year, maybe two in the NFC title game. Year of the Dragger. Lights out.
TAMPA BAY -- The Bucs should be chalk to repeat, and probably are, although we aren't picking them in this hole, mostly because I'm covering the mouth of Road Dog, who would love to pick the Bucs and the Jints in the NFC Championship Game. And no doubt, you've got to hand it to Gru-Dog. He is making these other guys look like they're having a bad decade. Let's face it, the Buc D was already there from the Dungy days. What Gru-Dog brought in was a mission statement, and a beautiful sequence of play-calling, and the extra added attraction of being a sharp personnel guy himself. He really doesn't need Rich McKay and Rich knows it. But it's probably a good idea to have a separation of church and state.
So the Bucs brought in Thomas Jones, a back that's just about to hit his top end; as limited as that is, it's still smart to get him. No, not smart, shrewd; that's what Gru-Dog is. Dwayne Rudd will make plays for him, too. See, a lot of coaches and personnel guys will take the player with a lot of college hype whose alma mater or paint job appeals to them, and then slowly wrench their guts out while watching the guy reveal himself as an NFL pretender. That's a no-go for Gru-Dog. He was on Donnie McNabb like popcorn when the fans in Philly were booing him and the Eagle braintrust was arguing about whether or not to take him. Gru-Dog picks guys up when they can help him. But one reason I'm not picking the Bucs is that they didn't get one of the young Draggers, and the only reason they didn't was because they had to give up the early-round picks to get Gru-Dog in the first place. If they'd gotten Andre Johnson, Tyrone Calico or Teyo Johnson, they'd be back.
ATLANTA FALCONS -- The Falcons solved their wide problem by getting Peerless Price, who is an experienced NFL hand also just coming into his prime, with no rookie-itis to fight off like the young Draggers must endure. Mike Vick is astounding, and not the player you want to race, or bet against. He's the Gru-Dog of QBs.
Peerless Price is Atlanta's deep rep in the Year of the Dragger, and he turns Finneran into a No. 2, perfect positioning for him; they also have a sledgehammer back in the second-year kid from Michigan State, Duckbreath, and the change of pace in Warrick Dunn. But their linebackers are overrated as a group, their DBs are nothing to write home about either; better move Ray Buchanan to safety, just to preserve him. Coach Reeves, getting to be time to pass the torch to a younger coach, like, say, Methusalah. This ain't baseball.
A good NFL head coach on the way up still should be frisky, able to get down and demonstrate with the boys -- or at least fake it.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS -- Geez, is everybody in this division going to the Bowl or what? Well, three of the four teams could go, and that's what makes it such a great league, isn't it? That's part of the reason. There's other things, howling bloodlust, near-religious belief, high-kicking cheerleaders, Lisa Guerrero . . . but we digress.
Saints' Year of the Dragger candidate: Donte Stallworth, though technically he was a rookie last year. He's so fast, the blowback of him going by leaves windburn, grass stains, turf dust, and tar on the uniforms of burned corners. Like so many nickels and dimes.
CAROLINA PANTHERS -- There are no off Sundays, no easy days in this league, not any more -- unless you're saying you want Julie Peppers feasting on your hindquarters. Look for the Panthers to come out of the gate strong riding Stephen Davis, burning clock, relying on John Fox's defenders to keep them in this division race. Three playoff teams could come out of the NFC South. Too bad Carolina won't be one of them. They neglected to pick up a Dragger from this year's bumper crop. Too bad. This will cost them in the end.
DETROIT LIONS -- They got a real Dragger in Chaz Rogers; his problem may be physical; he's not as well-padded as, say, Andre Johnson. But if Az Hakim comes back full strength, and that tight end who can get up the field calms down and does some things, by God, I unequivocally love Joey Harrington. The Lions fell into one there. Realistically, it will take Mooch a couple of years to pull a D together, but the Lions will go .500 and look good doing it, and my boy Spike Millen can put away that new set of hari-kiri knives he got as a housewarming gift from the Ford Foundation and family.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS -- Speaking of Draggers, Randy Moss has been strangely quiet this off-season and pre-season. I mean, can we at least get a few moving violations and roaches in the ash tray to cluck over and feel morally superior to you about, Randy? Actually, Mosshead was the Great Precursor to the Year of the Dragger. Normally you'd say it takes a rook the entire year in the NFL just to figure out his way and fill in that mudhole those large helmeted beings whizzing about have stomped into his backside. Normally, it takes time. But Moss came in smoking. And at least one or two if not three or four of these Year of the Dragger rookies will as well. Of course that won't help the Vikings stop anybody, will it? No, it won't, and the Vikings can't run clock without Michael Bennett. Yakky Rookie RB Onterrio Smith will be blown to smithereens by Thanksgiving. Of course, if he isn't, the Vikes become the Jeffersons, and start moving on up, to the beast side.
CHICAGO BEARS -- When I saw Anthony "A-Train" Thomas at Michigan, I said to myself, "Now there's a good back," far better than the usual Mistake From Penn State running back that most teams usually take too early. (I give you - can't even remember the names, Curtis Enis, Ki-jana Carter, that crew, the latest being Larry Johnson - Penn State hasn't put out a good pro back since Curt Warner. No, not that Kurt Warner. Curt Warner. Don't remember him? The Seadogs can't forget. Maybe, on second thought, Penn State hasn't put out a good pro back since Lydell. Lydell who? Be honest, you have no idea what you're reading, do you pilgrim?)
Forget Kordell (easy enough). Forget Grossman (too early - QBs take a while baking). The Bears go as far as the A-Train rumbles.
Which, unfortunately for them, probably isn't that far.
The Rams will avoid the giant sucking sound in this quagmire.
SEATLLE SEAHAWKS -- Somebody's going to turn the Seadogs around, someday, but it probably won't be Mike Holmgren. He's way too comfortable, has nothing to prove. The 'Dogs got him about three years too late; would have been considerate of him to bring Brett Favre along. Sure I dig Marco Truffant as well as the next guy, but the question is, does Rick Neuheisel like him? Actually, the Niners did the 'Dogs a favor by plucking Dennis Erickson off the coaching slush pile. No way does Holmie want Erickson showing him up. Holmie may actually work for a living now. It's a question of whose D gets to the ball better, and whose golden parachute will be needed first.
"Dear Paul Allen, it's not a question of what you have, it's a question of what you can do, and be. Love, Ricky Neuhy."
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS -- It's hard to get past the Erickson decision. All those climbers, those ex-Miami U. head coaches, they kill me. My grandmother could win at UM, and sometimes, when I look out of the corner of my eye, it seems like she is. That's not fair, actually I like Larry Coker because he's not a climber. Not everybody can win with a bulging disc in Jeff Garcia's back. Not everybody can win with Jeff Garcia at 100 percent, either.
I'm feeling a T.O meltdown around Halloween. You?
The Niners have a 2 guy, a Dragger, in ex-Tennessee national champion receiver, Ced Wilson (and from Memphis Melrose, by the way, just like that DT Robertson, the Jets' No. 1 pick). BYU, Bryant Young Unchained, is headed for the Elephant's Graveyard. Sad. BY is one of the most underrated players of the last decade, one of the most unappreciated dominant players in NFL history.
ARIZONA CARDINALS -- How did the Cards go 11-5? How did Emmie Smith rush for 1,400 yards? How did Jeff Blake become the No. 3 rated passer in the NFL? You dreamt it, that's how.
NEW YORK GIANTS -- First, let's put the "homo" thing to rest, can we? This is football. Don't be so delicate. You get called a lot worse than that out there on the grid, and Bill Parcells knows it.
This is the League of Distinguished Sh*t-Talkers, and Shockey the Dragger is one of the best of them. I have to come down with N.D. Kalu of the Eagles. If I had that kind of talent, if I could ball like Shockey can ball, everybody looks like one of the Fab Five. Everybody else got their thongs in a twist over this, just like in New York magazine's editorial dreams, but Bill Parcells didn't say anything and he likely thought even less than that about this "controversy," after New York magazine "reported" that Shockey had "called" Parcells a "homo." What, in the same digging way Parcells "called" Terry Glenn "she" a few seasons back? Get over it. You want to get into name-calling, I can tell you some doozies that have been shot our way, including some by virgin pilgrims out there who've never taken a kill shot on the grid and lived to tell about it, yet who e-mailed Dub-Dog last week calling out a few names of their own. Hey. Like I said. Get over it. You'll live.
Ernie Accorsi has to summon his mystics this year. The Jints are there, I mean they are right there, but there's something missing, some je na sais qua, some defensive waggle, something.
NFC Final, NFC semifinal, they're still a game short.
Unless Shockey makes some incredible, unhomogenized play.
DALLAS COWBOYS -- Shockster's play will probably come against the Cowboys, and therefore it will probably have little or no relation to who will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Bill Parcells is a good coach, a very good coach, but is he better than, say, Joe Gibbs? Personally, I don't think so. Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, Parcells won two Super Bowls with two. Don't even bring up Bill Walsh. Don't even go there. True, Parcells doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that's admirable, he gets points for that, but he's not Vince Lombardi just because he coached in New York City and lit up some nerds who happen to ask dumb questions at a press conference. There was more to Vince Lombardi than being a bully. Parcells will see how the other half lives this year. When you sign RB Adrian Murrell off the dead pool -- not a good sign. When your starting RB, Tony Hambrick, faints when he gets beyond four yards past the line of scrimmage, because of the unexpected altitude, it'll be a long year. When your fate is in the hands of Q Carter, and that's a big step up from C Hutchinson -- well, in a hundred years, who's gonna care?
Parcells is going to get called a lot worse things than "homo" before the year is out, and not by Shockey, but by Cowboy fans.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS -- Speaking of bank, does Steve Spurrier care if he wins or not, or is he just padding his Florida retirement fund? Oh sure, he cares, a little, but is he Joe Gibbs?
Since he keeps re-signing Danny Wuerffel, obviously not.
He gets to the playoffs, or he officially becomes Lou Holtz Jr.
Not the motto you want.
The Eagles shored up at linebacker and safety, and the free safety, Brian Dawkins, is the best in the business, and should be given even more responsibilities. He can stomp his foot and tilt the field. You've got to take advantage of that. Cornerbacks Lord Vincent & Taylor hold up against anybody. Duce Staley's All-Overrated, with those eggbeater crazy legs. Hey Ducey, you're making 2-point-2; get your ass into camp because, like everybody, but especially like you, you can be replaced. The one guy who can't is McNabb.
McNabb's problem has been the paucity of his arsenal, the small caliber weaponry, the lack of arrows in his quiver. Reid can be re-habbed as a playoff play-caller before he becomes the pro version of timid Bobby Bowden, calling a game like he's scared to win the Big One. Bunk receivers are bunk receivers and must be jettisoned.
McNabb now has suitable targets. Tight end Chad Lewis isn't Shockey, or Gonzo, or Teyo, or Baby Winslow -- I can't wait for Baby Winslow, to see where he goes, in the Year 2 of the Dragger, and you can tell, huh? But functional. Todd No Bod Pinkston, I'm guessing as a No. 2 he might do - just don't try to play him like he's a No. 1. Won't work. Freddie Mitchell is one of the Draggers; he's ready to step up. To a No. 1? No ... but he can be a 1 1/2, like, Derrick Mason of Tennessee. So. It'll come down to a big throw by McNabb to a young Dragger getting single-covered down the seam in the title game vs. the Bucs, the Jints, the Falcs, or, surprise surprise, even the Saints. It doesn't matter who the opponent is.
What matters is that in the Year of the Dragger, a young Dragger from the Class of 2003, Billy McMullen, catches the damn ball.
So that makes it Eagles vs. Titans in the Super Bowl.
Just remember -- you were misled here first.
(Editor's Note: Gentle pilgrim readers can write in to R-Dub/Road Dog and point out the utter lunacy and absurdity of his NFL thoughts and picks at Ralpwiley@aol.com)
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."