The Pro Bowl picks include some sweet surprises and, as usual, a few mistakes
Every year about this time, we mock the Pro Bowl teams because of the glaring omissions. The problem: Adding someone means dropping someone else. Unlike in past years, little of that is needed for the Feb. 9 game. Except for scattered gaffes, the players, coaches and fans-each group counts for one third of the vote—did a good job of sprinkling in the new ( Browns linebacker Jamir Miller, Bears center Olin Kreutz and 39-year-old 49ers guard Ray Brown) with the old (Jets running back Curtis Martin, Cowboys guard Larry Allen and Rams corner Aeneas Williams). A few choices were truly inspired, but we also have a bone or two to pick.
Before Cleveland's Dec. 30 game at Tennessee, Titans running back Eddie George told Miller, "We voted for you to go to the Pro Bowl. Go over to Hawaii and represent." Miller, the AFC coleader in sacks (he had 13 going into the last week of the regular season), split his time at outside linebacker and defensive end because of injuries to Cleveland's ends, diminishing his pass-rush numbers. The selection was particularly sweet for the 28-year-old Miller, who has bounced back from an NFL drug suspension early in his career with the Cardinals to become a force. "I came into the league at 20, and if you give anyone $3 million at 20 and say, 'You're on your own,' he's going to screw up some," Miller says. "This selection makes me feel like there's some justice."
Chris Samuels knows he could have been passed over in favor of the Redskins' other tackle, Jon Jansen, but he's grateful to be one of eight second-year players to be named. "Working against Bruce Smith every day in practice has been huge," Samuels says. "It means anything a good defensive end shows me in a game, I've seen 1,000 times already."
You could argue that outside linebacker Warrick Holdman and free safety Mike Brown are as valuable to the Bears' defense as Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is. "The public sees one person [ Urlacher] on our defense," says Holdman, "but the scouts know we're making plays." Holdman, who is equally adept at stuffing the run and dropping into coverage, and Urlacher have been one-two on the Bears in tackles all season. Brown has won two games in overtime with interception returns for scores. Holdman could have replaced the Giants' Jesse Armstead, and though the Eagles' Brian Dawkins was a worthy choice, it's hard to overlook Brown.
Going into the final week, the Patriots' Troy Brown was fourth in the AFC in receptions (95) and third in punt-return average (12.7 yards), and he's been New-England's most dangerous weapon. Still, Brown couldn't break the grip that the Raiders' Tim Brown, the Colts' Marvin Harrison, the Jaguars' Jimmy Smith and the Broncos' Rod Smith have on the AFC receiver slots. "Those guys all deserve it," Troy Brown says. "Too bad they don't have a category for 'football player.' "
Patriots Coach Grows on the Job
There is no better example of a coach who has improved the second time around than the Patriots' Bill Belichick. In his first head-coaching term, a five-year stint with the Browns, he had my-way-or-the-highway tendencies that alienated players and led to an ugly divorce with Browns owner Art Modell in 1995. Belichick isn't exactly a welcome wagon host now, but he has learned when—and how hard—to fight city hall. "I now accept the things I can't control," says Belichick, whose Patriots are in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. "I've figured out that when they put your name on the door that says HEAD COACH, a lot of people, not just players, look to you for direction, and you'd better be ready to give it."