Free agent backfield leftovers not appetizingPosted: Thursday May 15, 2003 6:58 PM
By Bob Harris, Special to SI.com
With the initial round of NFL minicamps under our belts, those of who follow the game closely face a brief lull I like to refer to as “The Dead Zone.”
The good news? This late-May slowdown offers an opportunity to catch up on previously unattended matters. The bad news? There is usually a reason such matters go unattended.
Nonetheless, I intend to use the resulting respite to offer a position-by-position review of this year's free agency "leftovers."
While the current crop of available free agents haven't drawn much to date, most if not all of them will find some form of employment in the league's annual June signing frenzy.
And while I'll readily admit this year's list of players facing post-June 1 release -- including Denver's Brian Griese and San Francisco wideout J.J. Stokes -- will be far more interesting than the current leftovers, there are still a few players of interest floating around out there.
That being the case, let's dive right into fray, shall we? This week: Quarterbacks, halfbacks and fullbacks.
Ray Lucas: Lucas, who struggled while starter Jay Fiedler was injured last season, had his contract terminated by the Miami Dolphins late last month. According to Miami head coach Dave Wannstedt, Lucas asked that his status be resolved as quickly as possible.
"Because of the respect that we have for him, we wanted to accommodate that request, and that is why we made this move today," Wannstedt told reporters.
"We still feel that Ray can be productive in this league, but we believe this move is in everyone's best interest. This gives him time to try to start working as soon as possible with whatever team he winds up with, rather than coming on board in June."
Lucas lost four of six starts after Fiedler went down with a broken thumb in a 24-22 victory over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 13. He was the lowest-ranked quarterback in the AFC after completing 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,045 with four touchdowns and six interceptions.
Even though team officials in Dallas claim they might not bring in any help at the position until training camp opens, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the eight-year veteran out of Rutgers, who played under Bill Parcells with both the Jets and Patriots, winds up signing with the Cowboys early next month.
Shane Matthews: Washington's 2002 opening day starter, who went on to be benched twice during the course of the regular season, signed a free-agent contract with Tampa Bay in March but was released after the team drafted Chris Simms.
In an article published April 11, ESPN.com insider Len Pasquarelli advised readers that Matthews had already been a big help to head coach Jon Gruden.
According to Pasquarelli, "Although Gruden is himself an offensive mastermind, it seems he wants to learn more about the Steve Spurrier-designed 'fun-and-gun' attack. Matthews played for Spurrier at Florida, and last year in Washington, and is tutoring Gruden on some of the offense's nuances."
The 32-year old Matthews, wound up starting seven games and completed 124 of 237 attempts for 1,251 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions with Washington.
In an interesting side note, Pro Football Weekly reported early this month that the decision to release Matthews may hurt the team in future dealings with veteran free agents.
This after Matthews turned down a $350,000 signing bonus with the Vikings in favor of the Bucs, which put him closer his home in Florida. The move apparently left the impression among some players that Matthews, whose opportunities are somewhat limited due to the fact he signed on with Tampa, should have been given at least a chance to compete for the backup position.
Although he no longer has what it takes to excel at this level, the overall dearth of QB talent in the NFL means Matthews isn't likely to be unemployed long come June 1. The Ravens, who will open camp with three relatively inexperienced signal callers -- Chris Redman, rookie Kyle Boller and journeyman Anthony Wright -- might be among those interested in a cagey veteran like Matthews.
Other QBs Of Interest: Neil O'Donnell has drawn interest from Miami and New Orleans, but could still re-sign with Tennessee; Joe Germaine, who was released by Cincinnati last month, could draw some interest as a potential No. 3 man; Kent Graham, who won't return to Jacksonville, might be facing the harsh reality that his skills no longer merit a roster spot; and Jeff George, whose services are apparently no longer needed in Seattle.
HalfbackLamar Smith: The Panthers' decision to sign Stephen Davis had more than a little to do with Smith's off-field problems. The former Seahawk, Saint and Dolphin was charged with driving while impaired last Thanksgiving and spent the final five games of the season on suspension.
In an article published shortly after Davis joined the club, the Sports Xchange advised readers that the former Redskins' running style is similar to Smith, in that he's "a bruising back who can wear down a defense."
Unfortunately for Smith, he no longer fits that description. Meaning he's going to have a very hard time landing a new job this summer.
Larry Centers: Buffalo waived Centers, the NFL's all-time leader in receptions among running backs on March 20.
Centers, who turns 35 next month, had 43 catches for 388 yards last season for the Bills. He ranks ninth all-time in catches with 808 for 6,691 yards. No other running back in NFL history has more than 700 receptions.
But as Rochester Democrat and Chronicle beat man Sal Maiorana noted the day after his release, Centers knew his future in Buffalo was tenuous when the team switched from the West Coast offense to Kevin Gilbride’s two-back set last summer.
In the West Coast offense Buffalo ran in 2001, Centers was a favorite target of quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt. That scheme fit his talents perfectly because it relied on short passes. However, the veteran's shortcomings as a blocker often left him watching from the sidelines last year, especially with Gilbride leaving halfback Travis Henry on the field on third down more often than not.
For the first time since 1991, his second year in the league, the NFL’s all-time leading pass-catching back failed to make at least 50 receptions. He finished the year with 43 for 388 yards and no touchdowns, and he saw his streak of catching at least one pass per game snapped at 143 games. He also carried a mere 11 times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
Asked, however, by Maiorana if he's still capable of contributing at this level, Centers replied: "There’s no doubt. I think if you look at my productivity, there’s no doubt when I was given an opportunity I was getting it done. If I wasn’t, just let me know.”
A three-time Pro Bowler, Centers set a single-season record with 101 receptions for 962 yards in 1995 for the Arizona Cardinals. He played nine years with Arizona and two seasons with the Washington Redskins before being abruptly cut by then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer and joining the Bills.
While Washington Post staffer Mark Maske advised readers the Redskins might try to move quickly to sign Centers upon his release, there hasn't been much since to suggest that will ever come to pass. Other reports have hinted that Centers might fit nicely in New England, where his veteran leadership and work ethic -- not to mention his still considerable receiving skills -- would be appreciated.
As ironic as it might sound, of all the players featured in this article, Centers -- a fullback, no less -- looks like the most likely of the bunch to make an offensive impact this season.
Which obviously speaks volumes about the current batch of talent at these three spots. ... But wait! It'll get better. Honest. ... Check back next week, when I'll review this year's (much more appealing) free agency leftovers at wide receiver, tight end and place-kicker.