Around the NFL for Week 4
Around the league
For what it's worth
With the lead note above involving kickoffs, it seems apropos to note that, bolstered by those two touchdown returns last week by Seattle's Leon Washington, there have now been six kickoff runbacks for scores in the first three weeks of play. Washington (99 yards and 101 yards), Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling (102 yards), Brandon Tate of New England (97 yards), Buffalo's C.J. Spiller (95 yards) and Antonio Brown of Pittsburgh (89 yards) all have returned kickoffs for scores. That projects to 32 kickoff returns for touchdowns over the course of a 256-game schedule. But the average kickoff runback leaguewide for '10 is still just 23.7 yards, less than a yard more than for 2009. As Washington noted this week, projections mean very little. In the first three weeks of the '09 season, for instance, there was just one kickoff return for a score, by Percy Harvin of Minnesota, and that extrapolates to 5.3 for the year. But there were 18 kickoffs returned for touchdowns in '09, the second most in the last decade. "Everything has to go right," Washington said. "And you never know when that's going to happen. When it does, man, you'd better take advantage of it."
A Single(tary) man
The last time a San Francisco team opened a season 0-3 was 2004, and that was Dennis Erickson's final year with the franchise, as the club finished a dismal 2-14. Whether a similar fate and abysmal record await coach Mike Singletary remains to be seen, but there were high hopes for the 49ers this season, and the early returns aren't encouraging. Still, it appears that club management remains enamored with Singletary, even if there are growing doubts about him leaguewide. There's no denying that Singletary possesses the kind of discipline and leadership traits a coach requires anymore. An old friend and former NFL quarterback once told us that the ability to compel men to play hard might be the most critical attribute a head coach could have these days. That may be true, but a coach still has to have a grasp of X's and O's, too. And his Hall of Fame lineage aside, Singletary has produced increasing suspicion around the league that he simply doesn't know the game as well as his glittering résumé might suggest. A reminder: Singletary was never a coordinator before supplanting Mike Nolan as head coach. And while that is hardly a prerequisite to becoming a head coach in the NFL, it's still a notable part of one's background. As is the absence of a coordinator's credentials. In the spring of 2008, the Atlanta Falcons interviewed Singletary for the job that was eventually awarded to Mike Smith. There were plenty of reports at the time that Singletary was one of the overwhelming favorites for the position. But when it came time for owner Arthur Blank and club president Rich McKay to narrow the field, Singletary wasn't even among the finalists considered. A Falcons official at the time told The Sports Xchange that, his tough-guy image not withstanding, Singletary was not all that impressive in interviews and that his basic football skills were not what the franchise was seeking at the time. Twenty-eight games into Singletary's career as a head coach, maybe all that's changed, and perhaps he has changed the culture in San Francisco. But a 0-3 start and a new offensive coordinator only three games into his second full season leaves lots of room for questions.
In the interest of full disclosure, we admit here that Jimmy Raye, dismissed Monday as San Francisco's offensive coordinator, is a good friend and confidant. That said, Raye declined to discuss his firing with The Sports Xchange, other than to note that "it might have been the most disappointing thing to happen to me in 35 years" in the league. A seven-time coordinator and one of the pioneers of minority coaches in the NFL, there is a chance, Raye conceded, that he may have worked his last game in the league, although he maintained that "things might look a little different in four or five weeks." For now, Raye, 64, will go to the retirement home he built he and his wife in North Carolina and pursue his other passion: golf. There is a growing sentiment in the league that Raye assisted Singletary learning some of the NFL ropes, that that he fashioned the 49ers' offense around the head coach's mandate for a physical, run-oriented attack and that he eventually paid the price. Singletary learned the style, of course, playing for Mike Ditka, and the rumors are that the Hall of Famer might still advise him at times. Singletary insisted later in the week that the decision to can Raye and replace him with quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson was solely his call. But the fingerprints of 49ers management are involved in the coordinator switch as well. Only last week in this spot, we suggested that quarterback
The "other" linebacker
For the first few years of his career, Lawrence Timmons was all but lost amid the galaxy of standout linebackers in Pittsburgh — James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior. But the fourth-year veteran really has stepped up his game this season after replacing Larry Foote as a starter in 2009 and is commanding strong reviews around the league. "The guy really flies around," assessed Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris after last week's loss to the Steelers. "He belongs with that group." The Steelers' first-round pick in 2007 — Woodley was the clubs' second-rounder that year in an incredible linebacker haul — Timmons leads the Pittsburgh defense with 33 tackles and also has a sack. He has 11 or more tackles in two of three games. Noted Farrior to The Sports Xchange: "(Tackle) totals can be misleading ... but he's the real deal." More a pure 'backer than Woodley, who essentially is an undersized end playing on the edge (as Pittsburgh is prone to do with its outside linebackers in the 3-4 front), Timmons took a few seasons to get his feet on the ground. Now that he has, he's knocking the feet out from under opposing ball carriers.
Silence is golden
There still have been "zero talks," a member of the Michael Vick camp told The Sports Xchange this week, about a contract extension for the Eagles' quarterback. So Vick continues to play for a base salary of $3.75 million — he got a $1.5 million roster bonus in the spring — and the meter keeps working its way toward free agency next spring. Vick is the second-leading passer in the NFL going into Sunday's game against Washington, with a career-best rating of 110.2, and if he keeps playing well, he's going to have a lot of teams coming after him when he hits the open market. ... Interesting quote from former Atlanta and Seattle coach Jim Mora, per Clark Judge of CBS Sports, on Vick: "What I've always wanted to know from him was: Was he a good guy who made poor decisions or a bad guy who conned me?"
The Sports Xchange has learned that 5-7 teams are poking around three-year veteran offensive lineman Tony Ugoh, and that the former Indianapolis Colts' starter is on the radar screens of several clubs for the second half of the season. Ugoh started 23 games at left tackle for the Colts in 2007-2008 before injuries limited him to four starts last season and he fell out of favor. But the former Arkansas star is still only 26 years old and, despite the Colts' move to switch him inside to guard in the offseason, there are still some franchises curious about his ability to play the weak-side tackle spot. Ugoh was released by the Colts because of a torn ligament in a toe on his right foot but is rehabbing diligently and should be ready to audition for interested suitors in 2-3 weeks. Look for Ugoh to be on someone's roster by about the middle of the season, and look for him to reach just a one-year deal and then go onto the open market next spring.
In three games, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been sacked only three times. That's a long ways from 2009, when Rodgers went down 50 times and became only the seventh player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards while absorbing 50 sacks. But there remain rumblings around the league that the Packers' tandem of old-timers at tackle, Chad Clifton (left) and Mark Tauscher (right), might have seen much better days. The pair was chosen together in the 2000 draft, and Clifton (second round) and Tauscher (seventh) have 272 starts between them. But Green Bay started plotting for the future in this year's draft, snatching tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round, and the former Iowa standout nearly started last week in place of an injured Clifton. As long as the Packers are winning and Rodgers is perpendicular for the most part, Clifton and Tauscher will probably remain in the lineup. But it's just a matter of time until they are replaced. By the way, of the 64 players who started at tackle in Week 3 games, 38 came into the NFL since 2006 and 30 since 2007. The position definitely is getting younger. There were 20 offensive tackles chosen in the first round of the last five drafts. All but two of them were starters last week. Russell Okung of Seattle, the heir to the retired Walter Jones' left tackle slot who has been sidelined by a high ankle sprain, is back practicing again this week.
Kansas City, here I come
A lot of people questioned the sanity of Chiefs' general manager Scott Pioli when he invested successive second-round draft choices on a pair of munchkins, versatile tailback Dexter McCluster (No. 36 overall) and corner Javier Arenas (No. 50), five months ago. Well, who's having the last laugh now? The Chiefs, who have started 3-0 for the first time since 2003, have a league-best 231 punt return yards. Only three other teams have 100 yards or more. McCluster, who has lined up just about everywhere for Kansas City, is averaging 23.7 yards per punt runback and has a touchdown. Arenas is averaging 9.9 yards. At some point, teams will quit kicking to the dynamic pair, and that typically translates into yards gained. Said the ever-confident McCluster: "We're just doing what we were brought here to do. (Pioli) knew what he was doing." ... Just in case you thought the kicking game isn't important in Kansas City, The Sports Xchange has confirmed that the Chiefs had a couple of special teams standouts, linebackers Larry Izzo and Mark Simoneau, in for tryouts on Thursday.
The Cincinnati offensive line has come under a lot of scrutiny in the first three weeks of the season — the unit was outfoxed by New England in the opener and wide receiver Terrell Owens suggested the line didn't perform all that well in last Sunday's victory at Carolina — but quarterback Carson Palmer has elicited some skeptical looks as well. The eighth-year veteran, who is among the NFL's highest paid players, has been only average so far. And there is concern in some quarters about his elbow, which was injured in 2008 and limited Palmer to only four games but didn't require surgery. In his first four years as a starter, Palmer had a 90.1 quarterback rating, a 64.1 percent completion rate, averaged 7.32 yards per attempt and 11.42 yards per completion. Since the start of the '09 season, his quarterback rating is 81.03 and his completion rate 59.9 percent. More alarming, Palmer isn't gunning the ball up the field or putting it in the small spaces, evidenced by an average of 6.46 yards per attempt and 10.8 yards per completion. Palmer, who arguably has his best receiver group in years, has insisted there is nothing wrong with his right elbow. But until he starts playing better and demonstrating more pocket presence — he wasn't pressured much last week or dumped at all by a Carolina pass rush with only two sacks this season — questions will persist.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has been labeled an "elite" player in some quarters, but you've got to win on the road in your division to earn that title. Flacco will get another chance on Sunday at Heinz Field. The third-year veteran, who actually began his college career at Pittsburgh before transferring to Delaware, has yet to win in his three trips (counting playoffs) to the Steel City. In fact, Flacco is just 8-7, hardly very impressive yet, against AFC North teams. His quarterbacking rating at home, where he is 13-4 (again including playoffs), is 88.4. On the road outside of Pittsburgh, where Flacco owns an 11-9 mark, it is 77.0. And at Heinz, it is just 59.2.
Out of the backfield
One of the goals of the Atlanta offense this year was to have the running backs become a bigger part of the passing game. And while it's early, the emphasis on having Matt Ryan throw more to his backs appears to be working. So far, the Falcons have 15 completions to their backs, led by Jason Snelling, with seven. The numbers might be modest. After all, there are three NFL backs — Frank Gore (22), Pierre Thomas (17), and Jahvid Best (16) — with more individual catches than the Falcons' backs have registered collectively. But Snelling is a solid receiver, capable of perhaps catching 40-plus balls. Atlanta hasn't had a back with 50 catches since Warrick Dunn in 2002. "I think people are so accustomed to us not throwing to the backs that they almost don't even cover it," said fullback Ovie Mughelli, who has four receptions. "It's almost like stealing. ... We've got great receivers up the field, and it's tempting to throw all the time to (wide receiver) Roddy White or (tight end) Tony (Gonzalez), but sometimes it's smart, too, for Matt to find us backs."
No sense kicking
In case you missed The Sports Xchange column earlier this week about kickers, in the wake of the New Orleans Saints' signing of veteran John Carney to replace a struggling Garrett Hartley for this week's game at least, the numbers bear repeating. The 32 starting kickers in the league, counting Hartley, played for an average of 1.87 other previous teams before the ones that currently employ them. Eight had been with at least three previous franchises, four with five or more teams. Carney, who was with eight teams before the Saints' brass made an S.O.S. call to him on Sunday night, was called within hours of Hartley's miss in overtime against Atlanta last week. Only nine current starting kickers are employed by the franchises with which they originally entered the league. Certainly, stability at kicker in the NFL is not a strong suit. "Two things you've got to have to kick in the NFL," Carney noted. "Mental toughness and a bag packed."
Strange but true: Of the 50 teams that finished with the worst third-down conversion rates over the past five seasons, 43 did not advance to the playoffs. This year, there are three teams in the third-down conversion bottom 10 — Pittsburgh (No. 30), Chicago (28th) and Kansas City (24th) — that are all undefeated. ... No one in the New Orleans' hierarchy is shocked that tailback Reggie Bush is already walking without crutches or a very pronounced limp. Bush is out with a fractured right fibula, a non-weight bearing bone, and some Saints officials privately conceded they will be surprised if the versatile tailback doesn't return to the field before the six-week hiatus originally predicted for him. ... Detroit has lost 22 straight road games and goes for No. 23 at Green Bay on Sunday. A loss would leave the Lions just one defeat shy of the league record set by, you guessed it, the Lions. ... With Darrelle Revis still rehabbing a strained hamstring, fifth-year cornerback Drew Coleman has moved ahead of first-round cornerback Kyle Wilson for the starting job with the Jets. ... Look for the Dallas offensive staff to give backup tailback Felix Jones more carries in the coming weeks. Jones, who has 22 attempts in three games, is more of a big-play threat than starter Marion Barber. ... Jacksonville, which had a league-low 14 sacks in 2009, already has seven sacks in three games. ... Partly because of an injury to Brad Jones, but also because of his strong play, Green Bay undrafted college free agent Frank Zombo of Central Michigan has won the Packers' strong-side linebacker job. ... There was plenty of flak stirred up this week when Indianapolis president Bill Polian used the term "fait accompli" to describe the potential switch to an 18-game schedule. But Polian has used the same term, as recently as two months ago, and does anybody really believe that more regular-season games aren't coming? As we've noted here in the past, Commissioner Roger Goodell isn't into floating trial balloons, as was his predecessor. If something comes out of Goodell's mouth, you can pretty much count on it happening. ... St. Louis has as many victories against Washington as it does the rest of the league combined, two, since the start of the 2008 season. ... The New York Giants have at least three turnovers in all three games this season. It marks the first time since 1999 that the club has had three straight three-turnover outings. ... Cleveland remains winless, and Browns coach Eric Mangini is still on the hot seat, but officials from two teams who have played the Browns insisted to The Sports Xchange this week that the club is building a very solid offensive line for the future. ... Tampa Bay has a bye this week. But when the Bucs resume play on Oct. 10 at Cincinnati, expect another rookie wide receiver to join Mike Williams in the starting lineup. Second-round pick Arrelious Benn has been working with the first team at flanker and could bump Sammie Stroughter to the slot. Bucs officials felt when they drafted Benn and Williams (fifth round) that they would both be starters at some point in their rookie campaigns. ... Since he joined the Steelers in 2002, quarterback Charlie Batch has logged only five starts but is 4-1 in those games. Batch's last loss was in the 2007 season finale against Baltimore, the team he faces Sunday. The Ravens have won eight straight games against backup quarterbacks and 10 of their last 12. ... The Houston-at-Oakland game Sunday will be the ninth straight home blackout for the Raiders. The team hasn't had a home game televised since the 2009 opener. ... Of the nine offensive linemen on the Seattle roster, five were not with the team at the start of training camp. And that doesn't even take into account veteran guard Chester Pitts, who was released this week. ... Since he was traded to New England in 2007, Randy Moss has more than two-thirds of the touchdown catches by Patriots wide receivers. Moss has 50 of the 73 scoring receptions by Pats' wide receivers in that stretch, a remarkable 68.5 percent.
The last word