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I know I say this every year, but the season is three days from starting, and I don't have a good feeling about the NFL pennant race. Everywhere I've gone this summer, coaches and players and writers told me the same thing. Part of it, I think, is the fact that the only thing preseason games do is confuse you.
Look at Jacksonville 31-New England 0, at Foxboro the other night. No Patriot starter played in the game. It's almost a negative for Jacksonville, as crazy as it sounds, because in the three series Byron Leftwich played against backup Patriots, he couldn't move the ball. Two first downs in a quarter. Hardly encouraging. This is why, after beating the Super Bowl champs in their house by 31, Leftwich seemed glum afterward.
"We should have gone out there and executed. We got some work to do,'' he said.
Therefore, I take as much from the Panthers going 4-0 in the preseason as I do from the Patriots going 1-3. Which is to say, nothing.
This much I do feel:
1. I picked Seattle back in the spring to make it to the Super Bowl, and I'm not jumping off the bandwagon now.
2. I picked Jacksonville back in the spring to make it to the Super Bowl, and I am jumping off the Jag bandwagon. Something to do with no pass-rush.
3. I don't get a good vibe about the Eagles. If you pin me down, it has something to do with Terrell Owens, but it's more than that.
4. The AFC is downright befuddling. One day I like New England. The next I say: They used up all their good fortune last year in the playoffs when DrewBennett dropped the Steve McNair bomb in the red zone, Peyton Manning turned into Joe Schmoe in the AFC title game, and Jake Delhomme threw for 252 on the Pats in the second half of the Super Bowl -- and lost, in part, because Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to a linebacker down the stretch. I'm not downplaying 15 in a row, and I admire New England more than any team in the league for its discipline. But the Patriots simply are not unbeatable.
5. Kansas City's overrated. Dallas is underrated (even with likely backup quarterback Tony Romo being one snap away from playing for 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde, because Romo may have had the best preseason of any Cowboy), as is Cleveland. Pittsburgh will be better than everyone thinks.
6. On a given day the Saints can be the best team in football. They have the best defensive line depth in the NFC, a great back and a quarterback who plays some great games. If Aaron Brooks screws his head on right, and they stop making the dumb turnovers and penalties (which have been a staple of this team in recent years), they're my darkhorse Super Bowl team. But those are very big ifs. Which is why I'm not even picking them to make the playoffs. I think they'll be 9-7, maybe 10-6.
7. Bad year for New Jersey football and Bay Area football. Jets, Giants, Niners, Raiders ... no more than one of them will be over .500.
8. MVP: Jake Plummer.
9. Coach of the Year: Mike Holmgren.
10. Rookies of the Year: Detroit RB Kevin Jones (offense), Arizona DL DarnellDockett (defense).
Now, about Philly. I have the same questions all of you do. I just think many of you are thinking all the questions will be answered positively. I don't. There's too much risk in this team for me. Does Jevon Kearse make all the difference to the defense?
"He tilts the field when he's in there,'' his former defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, told me. When he's in there. Those are the key words. This is the ultimate speed rusher, and in the last two years he's missed 16 games with a broken foot, a sprained foot and sprains of both ankles.
I love Brian Westbrook, and my gut tells me he'll be more Tiki Barber than AmosZereoue, a little back who can touch it 320 times and stay healthy. If he can't, Philadelphia's in big trouble, because I don't think DonovanMcNabb's the kind of keep-the-chains-moving, eat-the-clock quarterback you need in a runner-weak offense. I've heard him counter my claim about him not being accurate enough at 57 percent in a passer-friendly offense (not that it's just me who's saying it) three or four times this summer. And McNabb's such a good guy I hope he proves me wrong. Maybe a very good receiver takes you from 57 to 63 percent. Think of it. If you throw 450 passes in a season, the difference between 57 percent and 63 percent is 27 completions.
The addition of Owens could do that, right? Well, the addition of Owens also means McNabb will likely be throwing downfield more than he has in the past. No matter how good, and how open, Owens is, I'm dubious McNabb can jack up the completions that much.
Most Productive QB-to-WR Combinations 2000-03
Now about Owens. I spent some time with him a month ago at camp, and I give him credit for doing so, because he knows what I've said about him. (Last year, in the midst of his Tour de Destruction of San Francisco, I said, "Terrell Owens is everything that is wrong with pro football.'') He and McNabb said all the right things about how Owens wouldn't be a distraction if he wasn't getting the ball, as long as the Eagles were winning. I guess I'm going to view that skeptically. Let me show you a little chart here (left).
So this is what was so hard to live with. This was what Owens just couldn't stomach anymore. When I sat with Jeff Garcia in Cleveland a month ago to ask him about it, I was surprised to find him so, so ... sad.
All he'd ever done is show up to work every day and worked his rear end off to be the best player he could be, yet his co-star kept dissing him in the press for his lousy arm. How lousy could it be? I mean, look at those numbers. For a four-year period, 2000-2003, Garcia-Owens was more productive than Daunte Culpepper to The Great Randy Moss, by 15 catches and seven touchdowns. Culpepper has the huge arm and Garcia the piddling one, right? Maybe not. The average Culpepper completion to Moss went for exactly 12 inches longer than the average Garcia hookup to Owens.
You're asking why I bring this up. Simple. If Owens found so much to bitch about in San Francisco catching 87 passes and 12 touchdowns a year, how's he going to feel in the Philly, where there's a chance he could have lower numbers in both categories? How's he going to feel going from a 63-percent career thrower (Garcia) to a 57-percent career passer (McNabb)? Will he grow alligator arms reaching for McNabb's errant throws?
I''m not predicting doom. I'm really not. I am raising the point that it's easy to be on an NFL honeymoon on Labor Day. Everything's beautiful today. I just don't know if everything will be beautiful two months from today.
I think there's a good chance Owens will be on much better behavior with a quarterback he respects and considers a good friend in McNabb. And McNabb is the king of his locker room, the way Derek Jeter lords over the Yankees' clubhouse. McNabb will be able to keep Owens in line if he strays. Probably. I emphasize "probably.'' There is much at stake for Owens, because he begged to come to Philadelphia. That's the biggest reason I think this has a good chance of working.
As that noted football philosopher Bill Parcells once said: "That's why they play the games.''
Here we go with my picks for the 2004 season, and keep in mind these do not reflect the picks you see in the magazine this week:
CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES AFC Broncos 16, Patriots 13 NFC Seahawks 23, Cowboys 21
SUPER BOWL XXXIX Broncos 30, Seahawks 13
Plummer completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,182 yards, 15 TDs and seven INTs last season.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Factoid That May Interest Only Me
Last Wednesday night, with Hurricane Frances on the way, there were 19 fans in the stands for the first pitch of the Florida State League baseball game between the Brevard County Manatees and the Jupiter Hammerheads in Jupiter.
In the top of the second, a guy sitting behind third base yelled: "Let's hear some noise!'' And two of the Jupiter infielders immediately began jabbering encouragement to the pitcher.
Son of Factoid
Because Jupiter canceled the final three games of the season due to the hurricane, the Hammerheads had to postpone Miguel Cabrera Bobblehead Night over the weekend until next year. The promotion was sponsored by a company that insured homes and businesses for hurricane damage.
Three Questions With ...
New Miami wide receiver Marty Booker, acquired in a rare player-for-player training-camp trade with Chicago with a third-round choice for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye:
MMQB: You seem to be handling this deal pretty well, especially for a guy who was so well established in Chicago. Are you?
Booker: "I guess I could have gone in the tank about it, but what good would that do? My heart will always be in Chicago. It's where I really had to grow up. But football's a business. I'm not bitter. I think at my position, you're more expendable maybe than some other positions. I saw it happened to BobbyEngram in Chicago when I got there five years ago.''
MMQB: How will your role change in Miami?
Booker: "In Chicago, I was the workhorse. All the pressure at the receiver position was on me. Here, with Chris Chambers on the other side, some of that pressure will be off me. You can't double-team both me and Chris. One of us ought to be able to benefit from that.''
MMQB: There was a few hours where the trade was in limbo, and it was reported you told [Bears GM] Jerry Angelo you wouldn't have gone back to Chicago. True?
Booker: "No. I never told him that. It would have been hard, though. How could I have gone back to Chicago with the thought in the back of my mind that they tried to get rid of me? It made me understand where Nomar was coming from when he got traded to the Cubs, after what he went through last winter. [The Red Sox failed to get Alex Rodriguez from Texas after a public courtship, leaving Nomar Garciaparra bitter that he'd nearly been replaced.] There's no human way for that not to affect you. Nomar's a very strong dude. I don't know how the dude handled that.''
From the E-mail Bag
You're very opinionated on Mike Williams and fantasy football. Here goes.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
PEYTON'S NOT HIS FANTASY. From Nathan of Auburn, Calif.: "I'm still not convinced on Peyton Manning as a first-round pick the way you are. For two reasons. First, he doesn't run, which is a huge problem in our scoring system and makes guys like McNabb, Vick and to a lesser extent Plummer very valuable because they get a lot of extra points. And also he had such a disappointing season two years ago, when he threw a bunch of interceptions. Are you pretty sure he's going to put up a more typical 30-plus TDs and not have that interception problem again?"
All I know is his average season over the last five is 28 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and more than 4,100 yards. This is my problem with the fantasy game. Just too unrealistic. I mean, if you'd rather take Shaun Alexander than Peyton Manning -- which most people would do in fantasyville -- that's a sign of how dumb the game is.
THERE'S A REASON THEY CALL IT FANTASY FOOTBALL. From Aneesh of Redwood City, Calif.: "You said you're 'not crazy about the realism of the game.' That's why it is called fantasy football! The whole point is that the game isn't supposed to be real, and the sheer randomness of the teams we draft and the way in which we score points really gives NFL football another dimension.''
MIKE WILLIAMS HAS TO SLEEP IN THE BED HE MADE. From Nic Wetzler of Plymouth, Mich.: "Please stop crying for [ineligible USC receiver] Mike Williams. He dropped out of second term last year when he declared, hired an agent and took the up-front loan money and benefits from the agent. The only reason he's in school now is because the big-time didn't quite work out. If you let him back after all that, you set the precedent that amateurism and benefits are negotiable."
You make good points. But if he gives the money back, doesn't keep the agent and passes the classes he's taking, he shouldn't be allowed to play? And it takes the NCAA months to figure this out?
BILL COULD BE A GOOD GM SOMEDAY. From Bill Main of Toronto: "Peter, can the Raiders trade Charles Woodson while they have him designated a franchise player? If not, I would try to sign him to a predetermined long-term deal and trade him. I would rather have three or four quality $2-million players than Woodson, who is not really focused on the game and is hurt a lot.''
Good points. They could trade him, once signed, and I agree that I'd rather have three good players than Woodson, who is not a shutdown corner; I think he'd actually be a better safety today than corner. The problem is, I don't think other GMs would find Woodson any $8-million-a-year bargain either.
UHH, I DON'T KNOW HOW TO TAKE THIS EMAIL, REALLY. From Brock Cloutier of Corvallis, Ore.: "Do you think that it cheapens the Patriots' two Super Bowl wins, knowing that they cheated to win them? It is pretty obvious that the NFL is basically admitting to the fact that the Patriot maulings of the Rams' and Colts' receivers [in the Super Bowl three years ago and in the AFC title game last year] were blatantly against the rules by instituting the clarified rules about the five-yard bump zone.''
I think you need to look up the word "cheat'' in the dictionary. I've never heard anyone say this, inside the Patriots or outside. I don't get it. I see what you're saying, but you can pick out a play or two or five from every game and say, "Well, if that had been called differently, the other team would have won.'' Can't live that way.
Quote of the Week
"A meltdown? Well, I'd say there's, whatever, one-tenth of one percent of a chance of that happening. But I don't know if I'd take it sitting down. Not saying there'd be fisticuffs, but you've got to stand your ground.''
-- Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress, on the prospect of TerrellOwens going ballistic at some point this year if he doesn't get the ball enough.
To me, this is a rather remarkable admission. It says to me that Childress, despite all the niceties filling the air by Owens and the Eagles, realizes there might come a time where Owens loses it. Instead of just saying, "Oh, that'll never happen; we're not even thinking about it,'' he comes right out and addresses it. I admire him for that.
Enjoyable/Aggravating Travel Note of the Week
This pet thing is going too far. On a jam-packed, get-me-out-of-here-before-the-hurricane-hits Continental flight from Fort Lauderdale to Newark last Thursday, there was a cat in a carrier, a ferret in a plastic carry-box and a large white bird that the owner took out during the flight so it could stretch its wings. "I'm terrified of those birds!'' one flight attendant told another during beverage service. "Please tell them to put that thing away.''
On Tuesday night, at Newark Airport, a Scotty dog was being walked on a leash through the terminal. "Barkbarkbarkbark!'' the thing yelped, endlessly. From what I saw, no airport employee said, "It is inappropriate, not to mention illegal, to walk your dog through the terminal.''
And this from a guy who absolutely loves dogs. But there is no harm in slipping the pooch a dozing tablet inside some peanut butter before you go on a plane trip. In fact, it's the way to go.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the most surprising things on the cut list last night were:
a. Jeb Putzier, a near unknown, won the starting tight end job in Denver over Byron Chamberlain, and Chamberlain got whacked.
b. Dick Vermeil loves special teams, and he now has a totally unknown kicker (Lawrence Tynes) and punter (Steve Cheek).
c. Painful Cut of the Night: Jeff Fisher must feel sick for cutting the son of his former beloved teammate Walter Payton. He let go of Jarrett Payton.
d. Joe Hamilton will back up Peyton Manning, unless the Colts take a gamble on Tim Couch. Couch was awful in Packer camp and got cut.
e. Antonio Freeman lost his Dolphin backup job to Derrius Thompson and got cut.
f. Evidently Jason Gildon wasn't worth the dough Buffalo shelled out for him in late, late free agency. He was cut. He'll get picked up.
g. The Dolphins should have a running back from the waiver wire (Pittsburgh's Dante Brown?) soon, after getting turned down when they showed interest in Steeler backup Verron Haynes.
2. I think the Eagles will re-sign Dorsey Levens sometime this week or next, once they shuffle their roster a bit. If they choose to wait till next week, they can get by without him Sunday against the Giants, and then, when they sign him, won't be obligated to pay him for a full season -- which they'd have to do if he was in uniform on opening day.
3. I think I don't remember a year when more teams were petrified of playing players in the final preseason game. Which leads me to re-propose my proposal to bring sanity to the preseason: two regular games and two controlled scrimmages where only the bottom 50 guys on the roster play. Sit the starters. Play the kids. Judge the kids against their peers. Then, if they're playing great, play the kids in the real preseason games. It'll cost each owner maybe $1 million, if that. They'll spend more getting the NFL Network off the ground this year.
4. I think the Deion Sanders signing is a good one, but probably not a playoff-changing one. The question about Sanders is not whether he'll play well Sunday in the Ravens' opener at Cleveland. It's whether he'll play well two months from now. At 37, you've got to wonder about the durability of a guy who left the game three years ago because he'd lost some of his speed.
5. I think Dave Wannstedt will pick A.J. Feeley to start against Tennessee Sunday.
6. I think it was compelling being in South Florida last week as people prepared for the hurricane. You don't realize, living in other parts of the country, how devastating hurricanes can be, and how life-altering they can be. We're talking two or three million people went to bed last Friday night not knowing if they'd sustain major property damage or even lose their homes to this hurricane. In the Dolphins press room Wednesday, when every scribe was glued to the TV watching the latest weather report that showed the path of the hurricane, the graphic on TV looked like an ice cream cone, and one writer said somberly, "Cone of death.'' That's something we in New Jersey just don't have to deal with. I've got a newfound empathy for the Floridians and others on the Southeast coast who have to worry about this annually.
7. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Mary Beth King reports from Colgate that, after one day of classes at her new school, she had two papers due within 24 hours and 300 pages to read within 48 hours. "I mean, this is crazy,'' she said. No. It's called "the big leagues.''
b. Well, Laura King has returned from her work experience/Olympic guide/gofer job/boondoggle at the Olympics, and now she's a senior at Tufts. Rumor has it she did a fine job over there, but if any of you Olympians know otherwise, please report her to me immediately. Laura is having Cleary Hallett withdrawal. Cleary and the L-Dawg roomed together on a big ship that was docked in Athens, and everyone called them "the tag team.'' Cute. Now it's back to the real world, girls.
c. Coffeenerdness: You know I'm a fan of the Starbucks latte, in part because I can get the same latte in La Jolla that I can at Newark Airport. Uniformity is good ... except in the pastries. Too much uniformity is bad in the pastries. Can't I get a raspberry danish in Minneapolis and a cheese danish in Manhattan? Why do I have to have the same pastry everywhere in the country? You don't want the same six dessert choices at every nice restaurant in America, do you? Okay, then why is the crumb cake in Montclair the same as in Dallas? You can have some imagination, beanpeople, as long as you don't mess with my latte.
d. Remember when the mondo left-handed power hitter, Jim Thome, left the Tribe, and the fans mourned like the franchise was drifting off into Lake Erie? Well, let's compare Thome with Cleveland's new left-handed power hitter, TravisHafner, keeping in mind that Thome's playing in a better power park, Citizens Bank, than Hafner's Jacobs Field. Thome's smoking him in homers, 39-24. Let's look at batting average, on-base and RBI. Hafner: .310, .410, 101. Thome: .276, .401, 91. I think Mark Shapiro knows what he's doing.
e. You know it's a totally unpredictable baseball season when a caller calls Chris Russo, the Mad Dog on New York's WFAN, and asks who the Dog thinks would be the Yankees' first starter in a playoff series, and he says he thinks it'll be Orlando Hernandez. This is a guy who's been in the rotation for about 10 minutes. I'm not saying it's the Red Sox's year, because I don't know that it is. But I do know it'll be an interesting September.
f. Say it ain't so, Daryn Kagan. Please, please, please. Say it ain't so.
g. CNN did an absolutely phenomenal job covering Hurricane Frances over the weekend. The coverage Sunday morning of the people who rode out the hurricane and then walked out of their homes to see the damage in the neighborhood was riveting.
8. I think you might not have heard of two guys who were the best backs I saw in this preseason: Pittsburgh's Verron Haynes and Dallas' ReShard Lee. But they should both get real playing time starting this week. I still think JeromeBettis should take the first carry for the Steelers, not Duce Staley.
9. I think Eddie George has had better preseasons. Minus a 23-yard run he had against Oakland, George rushed 23 times for 28 yards. But because JuliusJones is in the Cowboys' doghouse -- he asked out of the Tennessee preseason game after feeling winded last Monday -- George is still vital to this team. If I were Bill Parcells, I'd throw the irrepressible Lee in there for six or eight touches Sunday against Minnesota.
10. I think it looks more and more like the Vikings have gotten a huge break regarding the probable suspension of running back Onterrio Smith for four games. Looks like his appeal won't be adjudicated until after the first game. Which means the Vikings' backfield will have at least one stud (with MichaelBennett doubtful) to face one of the best run defenses, Dallas', in game one.
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.