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BEREA, Ohio -- I know how you feel about the Browns. You're negative. You don't see them competing for a playoff spot, even in a suspect division like the AFC North, with no starry team. I thought that way too, until I saw them in camp here last week.
I'm not going to predict a win total, but I think they'll be over .500. I love the Jeff Garcia acquisition, and, as for Kellen Winslow, I think he'll be an 85-catch guy as a rookie and score more points than any tight end in football. Think of how much better they are on offense (except for the offensive line, which remains suspect), and I haven't even mentioned Lee Suggs pressing William Green hard for time at running back.
"I feel good that we've done some things in the last six months to get us significantly better,'' Butch Davis told me on the field after the morning workout. "I think it's been the best offseason we've had. For the first time, we've got some real positional battles with quality people fighting for jobs.''
Garcia has always been a favorite of mine, even when I advocated TimRattay should be the 49ers' quarterback of the future last year. My reasoning: With San Francisco cutting salaries to the quick to pay some defensive studs like Ahmed Plummer and (they hope) Julian Peterson, it was ridiculous to commit $5 million or more per year to a smallish and well-beaten Garcia, who I felt was showing signs of wear. His completion percentage was significantly down (lifetime entering 2003: 62.2 percent; 2003 season: 57.4). The time had come for San Francisco to play a promising, stronger-armed kid like Rattay, even if it meant sacrificing a better player today like Garcia to do it.
Garcia looked impressive last week. Keep in mind this was around nine in the morning, a dog-day time of practice if there ever was one. One of his offensive linemen, Kelvin Garmon, jumped offside. Garcia jumped on him. "Don't be feeling sorry for yourself that you've got to be out here now!'' he barked. "We've all got to be here. Take this chance to get better.'' A few minutes later, he had a receiver streaking down the right sideline in man coverage. Garcia overthrew him by a yard. I looked back at Garcia, and he jumped in the air, pounding both fists on the side of his helmet, furious with himself that he missed a chance for a nice 23-yard gain. Later, twice, he hit a flying Andre' Davis up the left side, both times in single coverage, and Davis was off to the races. One pass was 37 yards in the air, the other maybe 33.
That's what I loved to see. I never thought Garcia had a great downfield arm. He doesn't, and any coach who's ever had him will tell you that. But having a great tight end will help. And Phil Simms says Winslow's the best college player he's seen come into the league in years -- high praise from a guy who doesn't grant praise like that to rookies very often.
(Let me say something about the words "great downfield arm.'' I remember maybe eight or nine years ago when I was doing a story on the relationship between New England coach Bill Parcells and quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and I asked Bledsoe about his big arm, and he told me he'd thrown more than 500 passes the previous years, and guess how many went longer than 40 yards downfield? I said I didn't know. "Six,'' he said. "So I've always thought it was pretty overrated when people talk about this great arm strength I've got.'')
Back to Garcia. The combination of his leadership, his love of the game, his anger at himself and anyone around him for screwing up and his intelligence in reading coverages make him one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the game, still. And he gives the Browns such a better chance to make the playoffs than the nice-guy-but-too-vanilla Tim Couch did for the past five years.
Now I know you're saying: There's no way Garcia's one of the top 15 quarterbacks in football. Yes he is. Here's my top 15, rated by who has the combination of resume and immediate bright future:
1. Peyton Manning 2. Tom Brady 3. Steve McNair 4. Brett Favre 5. Trent Green 6. Jake Plummer 7. Daunte Culpepper 8. Chad Pennington 9. Donovan McNabb 10. Mike Vick 11. Garcia 12. Matt Hasselbeck 13. Marc Bulger 14. Brad Johnson 15. Mark Brunell
(Didn't mean to get off on that tangent. But I knew a few of you would write in and ask how I could put Garcia up high on that list, so I thought I'd just give you my list.)
I can tell you with certainty that one of the reasons Couch isn't back with Cleveland is that people in power were tired of his milquetoast, no-fire approach to football. They'll never say that about Garcia.
Sometimes, players need a new start. Garcia needed it desperately. There is still a sadness about him from his San Francisco experience. It's not just the constant trashing he took from Owens, who complained publicly about Garcia's arm strength. It's the idea that all he ever did was play as hard as he could. Sometimes it was enough, sometimes it wasn't. But he feels he left the Bay Area with this weak-armed, can't-stay-on-the-field rap, and it bugs him.
"I've been stereotyped as a guy who's not big enough, who's got an average arm,'' Garcia told me. "Well, I've gotten to three Pro Bowls in the last five years with that average arm. There's something about guts and determination that's pretty important to this position too. When I'm out on the field, I'm the harshest critic of myself. I expect perfection. I show my emotion. I'm not content or happy just to be out there playing. I'm only content doing everything I can to win. And I want everyone else out there striving to be the best they can be too.''
In Cleveland, too often receivers felt Couch didn't look at all his options. "I want everyone who goes out into the pattern to know they're alive,'' he said. "They could get it. When they know that, it's much easier for them to know on every play they've got to give everything they've got.''
Again, I could be wrong. I've been wrong before -- a lot. But Garcia is just the jolt of optimism this team needed.
Condiment and Red Meat Note of the Week:
Cleveland tight end hopeful Chad Mustard spent 2002 playing for the Omaha Beef of the National Indoor Football League.
... Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James, who counseled fellow knee-surgery victim Willis McGahee in the off-season while both were working out in Florida.
MMQB: You were in Willis' shoes a couple of years ago. What do you consider to be the best advice you gave him in the last couple of months?
James: "Be real with yourself. You can't rush Mother Nature. When your legs are bothering you, don't be afraid to ask your coaches for a day off in camp. The other thing I told him is to remember that your other leg will be working extra hard because you'll naturally be favoring the leg you hurt. So be careful with that leg. The bottom line is, you want to rush it, but you have to be smart.''
MMQB: Does it really take a year, or longer, to feel right after knee surgery?
James: "The first year you're just not going to feel right. But after that, you'll be even stronger. I feel stronger now with my legs than I ever have. Sometimes, playing basketball, I can dunk off one leg, which is not something I'm used to doing.''
MMQB: Are you a better running back than you were before knee surgery?
James: "Well, I know at least that I'm a whole lot smarter. I think after being in the league a while, you look at things a little differently. I used to think it was great to stay in games that maybe were out of hand to get some extra yards. Now I don't care about stats. Stats aren't big. Playoffs are big. Winning is big. Winning everything.''
Lots of Monopoly fans out there, my editor tells me. I am too. You know who loves monopoly? Lito Sheppard, the new starting corner of the Eagles. His Monop strategy: "I like the horse. It's the biggest token. I don't buy everything I land on. I pass on the light blue -- Connecticut, Oriental. Low class. The best color group is the green. Upper middle class. You get your money that way. I don't like the railroads. Not cool. Not enough money involved when you land on them.''
THE RAILROADS ARE FOR LOSERS. From Doug Shaffer of Las Vegas: "Railroads? They're probably the most worthless real estate on the whole board next to the utilities. Give me one Monopoly with hotels on it against four railroads and two utilities anytime and I'd wipe the floor with you.''
OK. I'll give you Baltic and Mediterranean, and you give me the railroads and utilities, and I'll small-ball you to death.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
WHY NAMATH AND NOT SIMMS? From Jerry Caputo, of Mahwah, N.J.: "Joe Namath sails into the Hall of Fame, but mention PhilSimms' name and people snicker. Look at the career stats; Simms was better in almost all categories, especially TDs vs INTs. Looks like the voters were smitten with 'Broadway Joe'. Why?''
Jerry, the game was different 40 years ago. Less of the dink and dunk, more of the long ball. And no one threw the long ball as consistently well in the mid- to late-'60s as Namath. He also predicted, and then quarterbacked, the biggest upset (and maybe the most meaningful game) ever in pro football. Namath deserves to be in Canton for sheer impact on the game. That having been said, I am one of the few proponents in the room for Simms' candidacy. My feeling is winning is as important, or more so, to a quarterback's legacy. When Simms had to be the mad bomber and the big offensive piece on a playoff team, he was (1984, with 4,044 passing yards on a lousy offense). And when he needed to take a back seat, when Joe Morris and the strong running game emerged, he played efficiently and just won, baby. He played the best game of his life (22 for 25 in Super Bowl XXI) in the biggest game of his life. He threw for 432 and 515 yards in back-to-back weeks in 1985. More career passing yards than Steve Young and Troy Aikman. There's a lot to like about his candidacy, but I don't think he'll make it.
THE CHARGERS LOOK SUPER TO THIS FELLOW. From K.C. Peters of Huntington Beach, Calif.: "You've spent too much time in the smog in Carson, Calif. You don't see any way for the Chargers to compete in an increasingly weak and depleting AFC West? Are you kidding me? This team has a huge amount of young, hungry and healthy defensive talent. Our new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, will have these guys bringing it. We will be in the playoff hunt come December. You heard it here first.''
That's what's so great about football in August. Everyone can dream.
CHARLIE WEIS? BLACKBALLED? From Rick of Boston: "I have this feeling that Bill Parcells has had the Patriots' offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, blackballed. Just a hunch. I remember Parcells' rant about Charlie's disloyalty during the Belichick/Parcells divorce, and Lord knows Parcells seems to have the ear of so many in the upper echelon of the NFL. It just sort of becomes a possible, if not likely, answer to the question: How does a two-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator not even get a sniff at a head job? Romeo at least got that.''
Weis did get a sniff, interviewing with the Giants last winter, and GM ErnieAccorsi was impressed more with Weis than with Crennel. It is true that Parcells doesn't have much use for Weis any longer. But here's the way it works in the NFL: GMs and presidents and owners ask their friends for advice about head-coaching candidates. Not everyone in the league considers Parcells a friend. So not every owner or GM would call Parcells, and even if they did, if they liked Weis enough, they wouldn't allow Parcells' feelings about Weis to ruin their opinion of him. It would affect it, but not be the decisive factor. Weis also was seriously considered by Buffalo. Weis is only 48. His window's not shut.
THANKS, ANTHONY. From Anthony Grasso, of Flanders, N.J.: "Your Sports Illustrated article on Bill Belichick was excellent. I always rooted against Bill because I had this idea he was a mechanical robot kind of coach and would never be flexible enough to succeed as a head coach. Boy, was I wrong on both counts! He has tuned out to be maybe the best coach in the NFL and he's much, much more interesting than I ever thought. His homework is incredible but he also understands the human element better than many/most of his contemporaries. I have become a Belichick rooter now.''
Thanks a lot. I found him far more interesting than I thought I would, and I left a lot of stuff out of the piece that I'm going to share in the coming weeks in this column.
"We hope that you agree that public bigotry and bias is unacceptable. So too the equation of any minority group, inclusive of gay and lesbian people, as vermin. We are human beings, Mr. Lurie, not vermin.''
-- Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force Executive director Rita Addessa, in a letter to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie last week after Terrell Owens responded to a question from Playboy about whether his former quarterback JeffGarcia was gay. Owens said if it smelled like a rat and looked like a rat, it usually was a rat.
As of the weekend, Lurie had no comment on Owens' statement or Addessa's letter.
At the Pittsburgh International Airport (where all shoes and sneakers and sandals must come off, by the way), travelers must show their boarding passes and photo IDs to the security person at the start of the line to get to the X-ray machines. Then you have to show the boarding passes to the person at the X-ray machine. Then you have to show the ID and the boarding pass at the gate.
Just a question: What can happen in the 15 feet between the start of the line and the X-ray machine? It is a secure area. People can't jump the line. And the whole ID thing at the gate ... I mean, the duplication of labor at airports, and the left hand not knowing what the right is doing (as you learned with the different shoe rules at different airports last week) is really something.
1. I think it's good to see Terrell Owens is keeping a low profile.
2. I think denizens of Eagleville mean it. The neatest fan sight I've seen on 10 stops so far came at Eagle camp, when, on the three-mile drive back from the practice field to the camp site at Lehigh University, I saw what looked like a party bus on the side of the road with male, 20-something Eagle fans spilling out of it. They were waving at passing cars, hoping to get a player or two to stop to sign and pose for photos with them. On the side of the bus, in bold paint, was this bold proclamation: "Brotherly Love Doesn't Count On Sundays.''
3. I think I'd like to know if any of you is buying this Denny Green drum-beating for the playoffs in Arizona. None? Good for you. I always knew I had non-gullible readers.
4. I think, for a long time, I felt the league should go to 18 regular-season games and cut the preseason game total from four to two. Last year I changed my mind, with all the preseason injuries to major players like Mike Vick and ChadPennington. Now, with the Redskins losing one of their five best players, tackle Jon Jansen, for the season with a torn Achilles in the first exhibition game, I am more convinced than ever that there should be 16 real games and two preseason games, with coaches using "live,'' full-contact summer scrimmages against nearby foes to see as much of the bottom 50 guys on the roster as they need to see. For Jon Jansen to be on the field for five preseason games -- even though he'd probably only play a series or two in at least a couple of them -- is a foolish risk in a game where you just don't find tackles as good as him.
5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. When you travel a lot, and you can't always find time to laptop your way into e-mail and the office, the explosion of these Kinko's computer centers are the greatest thing to happen to travel in memory. Instant e-mail. And cheap.
b. Two quick non-Sox observations: PNC Park is such a gem. And RobMackowiak is the next Travis Hafner.
c. Coffeenerdness: Talk about your full-service team. A Browns' front-office person brings Jeff Garcia his grande soy something-or-other every morning from Starbucks.
d. How smart a GM is Mark Shapiro of the Indians? A year and a half after salary-dumping Jim Thome, the Tribe is sniffing first place in the AL Central.
e. I live in JimMcGreevey's state. And the way I feel about his startling gay admission and resignation is not that I'm proud of him for coming out. It's that I'm disgusted with him for hiring an unqualified boyfriend for $110,000 a year and making us pay for it, and then coming out when the guy apparently intended to blackmail him. No wonder so many people have no use for politicians.
f. Cheer for Vanessa Czarnecki, a math teacher in Fresno and the Greek Olympic Team's softball second baseman, courtesy of her mom's family being Greek. Her dad's the NFL info guy for FOX and a good friend.
g. I actually got into the swimming over the weekend a little bit. Love the Olympics.
6. I think it's pretty amazing to think Detroit (Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Tai Streets, Az Hakim) has better one-through-four receiver depth than the mighty Rams (Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis, Dane Looker).
7. I think the funniest quote of the weekend belonged to long-lost Giants running back Ron Dayne, who was very impressive in his Tom Coughlin debut. Afterward, he said, reportedly with a straight face, "I don't think I have anything to prove.'' Ron, let me tell you something. You have something to prove when you do calisthenics.
8. I think -- and I'm going to address Bill Belichick in this column next week -- that the most interesting thing that happened in all preseason games this weekend was starting wide receiver Troy Brown playing defensive back for the Patriots for eight plays Friday night against Philadelphia.
9. I think you're going to see Chad Pennington hit the jackpot in the next couple of weeks. The Jets are determined to get him signed long-term before the start of the season, and here's a good sign: His agent, Tom Condon, will be in New York this week to try to hash things out.
10. I think it is unbelieveable that the Chargers are at war with their first-round quarterback, Philip Rivers. Not that I know much about the business, but the Chargers are using one of the dumbest ploys they teach you NEVER to use in Negotiations 101. Never break off talks and say, "The offer will go down every day from here on out.'' Silly, I-dare-you-to-knock-this-block-off-my-shoulder crappola. Rivers won't be signing for a dime less than was on the table the day San Diego made that pronouncement.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.