Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Crystal Ball of the NFL

Composed by The Phanatic Staff

The NFL season gets underway tonight where the Three Rivers meet, as defending Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh begins its defense of the title without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the Miami Dolphins.

The 2006 season kicks off with many questions...Will Carson Palmer be fully recovered from a torn ACL? Which team will separate itself in the blood bath that is the NFC East? Is the Deion Branch fiasco a sign that New England's reign as a year-to-year title contender has come to an end?

Answers to those questions and more can be found below as The Phanatic picks division winners, wild-card entries and crowns a Super Bowl champion.

Jared Trexler

AFC East
1. New England (11-5)
2. Miami (10-6)
3. Buffalo (5-11)
4. New York Jets (3-13)

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh (11-5)
2. Cincinnati (10-6)
3. Baltimore (9-7)
4. Cleveland (6-10)

AFC South
1. Indianapolis (12-4)
2. Jacksonville (8-8)
3. Tennessee (5-11)
4. Houston (4-12)

AFC West
1. Denver (11-5)
2. San Diego (9-7)
3. Kansas City (9-7)
4. Oakland (3-13)

Wild Cards: Miami, Cincinnati
1st round Playoffs: New England over Cincinnati; Miami over Denver
Divisional Playoffs: Pittsburgh over Miami; New England over Indy
AFCG: Pittsburgh over New England

NFC East
1. Dallas (11-5)
2. New York Giants (9-7)
3. Philadelphia (8-8)
4. Washington (7-9)

NFC North
1. Minnesota (9-7)
2. Chicago (8-8)
3. Detroit (6-10)
4. Green Bay (4-12)

NFC South
1. Carolina (12-4)
2. Atlanta (9-7)
3. Tampa Bay (7-9)
4. New Orleans (5-11)

NFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
2. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
3. St. Louis (6-10)
4. San Francisco (4-12)

Wild Cards: Atlanta, NY Giants
1st Round Playoffs: NY Giants over Minnesota; Dallas over Atlanta
Divisional Playoffs: Dallas over Carolina; Seattle over NY Giants
NFCG: Dallas over Seattle

SUPER BOWL: Dallas 24, Pittsburgh 20

Synopsis: The Steelers fall one step short in their quest to repeat. The Cowboys have more weapons on the perimeter and a very similar defense. The game will come down to a short yardage situation late in the game for Pittsburgh, which hands the ball to undersized Willie Parker on 4-and-1 in Cowboys territory. Parker is stacked up at the Parcells another ring. Both coaches retire after the season -- Parcells back to ESPN and Cowher into retirement for one season before taking over at North Carolina State.

Tim McManus

AFC East
1. New England (11-5)
2. Miami (10-6)
3. Buffalo (8-8)
4. New York Jets (4-12)

AFC North
1. Cincinnati (12-4)
2. Pittsburgh (9-7)
3. Baltimore (8-8)
4. Cleveland (7-9)

AFC South
1. Indianapolis (11-5)
2. Jacksonville (9-7)
3. Houston (6-10)
4. Tennessee (5-11)

AFC West
1. San Diego (12-4)
2. Denver (10-6)
3. Kansas City (7-9)
4. Oakland (3-13)

Wild Cards: Miami, Denver
1st round Playoffs: New England over Denver; Indianapolis over Miami
Divisional Playoffs: New England over San Diego; Cincinnati over Indianapolis
AFCG: New England over Cincinnati

NFC East
1) New York Giants (11-5)
2) Philadelphia (10-6)
3) Dallas (9-7)
4) Washington (7-9)

NFC North
1) Chicago (11-5)
2) Minnesota (9-7)
3) Detroit (7-9)
4) Green Bay (3-13)

NFC South
1) Tampa Bay (12-4)
2) Carolina (10-6)
3) Atlanta (10-6)
4) New Orleans (5-11)

NFC West
1) St. Louis (10-6)
2) Seattle (8-8)
3) Arizona (8-8)
4) San Francisco (6-10)

Wild Cards: Carolina, Philadelphia
1st round Playoffs: Philadelphia over St. Louis; Carolina over Chicago
Divisional Playoffs: Tampa Bay over Carolina; Philadelphia over NY Giants
NFCG: Tampa Bay over Philadelphia

SUPER BOWL: New England 17, Tampa Bay 10

Synopsis: Jon Gruden reminds the world that he is still one of the best coaches in the league, but Bill Belichek proves once again that he is in a class of his own. Tom Brady, fully recovered from a sports hernia that hampered him late last season, puts up a career year and caps it with his fourth Lombardi Trophy.

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Copyright 2006 The Phanatic

Monday, September 04, 2006

Austin, South Bend mark center of college football universe

By Jared Trexler

"Mama said there would be days like this."

This is Nick and Jessica big. Yankees/Red Sox big. Big Brother All-Stars big.

The escalator ride up a perennial college football power's schedule skips a few steps this Saturday. Big Ten stalwarts Ohio State and Penn State invade hostile territory for salivating early-season contests.

And we are talking boyfriend walking into girlfriend's parents' house hostile. Tom Cruise's cross examination of Jack Nicholson hostile. Any clean-air-breathing, JFK-loving, Bruce Springsteen-worshipping liberal within five feet of the White House hostile.

Austin houses the nation's largest student body, a fan base beaming in the afterglow of a national championship and a fierce-looking, real-life mascot.

South Bend is God's sanctuary on Saturday's through December. The Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus dot the surrounding landscape. Lawn mowers stay in the shed.

By the way, Texas and Notre Dame are pretty good.

And we are talking Kelly Clarkson's post-Idol career good. The combination of tuna fish and relish good (yes, really.) The taste of Samuel Adams after a hard day's work good.

Vince Young may be gone, but the Longhorns still know how to move the ball at will on offense. The two-headed monster of a slim Jamaal Charles and a bruising Selvin Young punish a defensive unit's front seven.

Bring the safety into the box and Limas Sweed -- he of the Velcro hands and track-star speed -- will beat you deep.

Colt McCoy looked comfortable in his first start of the season, finishing 12-of-19 for 178 yards and three touchdowns in the 56-7 romp of North Texas.

The Mean Green D isn't as nasty as Ohio State's unit, but several Buckeyes are still getting their feet wet at the linebacker position after all three starters, including all-world A.J. Hawk, departed Columbus.

Notre Dame struggled offensively in a 14-10 victory in Atlanta against Georgia Tech last Saturday night. Quarterback Brady Quinn danced in the pocket all night long, constantly staring in the face of a zone fire blitz scheme from linebacker Phillip Wheeler and company.

Quinn is blessed, however, with a golden arm to go along with a bright intellect in reading defenses. The Heisman Trophy frontrunner has a pair of talented wideouts in Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija and a consistent running back in Darius Walker.

Both visiting teams will travel with a wealth of talent as well.

Ohio State brings multi-purpose quarterback Troy Smith and long-striding, roadrunner Teddy Ginn into the Saturday night bout in Austin. The Buckeyes also bring the nation's top ranking -- a pretty trivial spot at this time of year.

Penn State is equipped with possibly its deepest receiving corps in head coach Joe Paterno's long, storied history. Derek Williams is a star waiting to happen, lining up anywhere from in the slot to the backfield.

Deon Butler is the burner. Jordan Norwood is the hands. Chris Bell and A.J.Wallace are the freshmen that illustrate Penn State's influx of speed in recent recruiting classes.

Normally, each of these four teams would be playing Hostess Tech this Saturday. After all, one single check mark in the loss column usually sets off a bonfire of national championship tickets at campuses nationwide.

The two marquee matchups this Saturday highlight the ever-present need for a playoff. Teams should not be punished for scheduling these games, but rather applauded.

College basketball rewards tough early-season schedules with an NCAA Tournament-guaranteed RPI. College football says, "Thanks for the thrill. See you in Nashville the week before New Years."

Ohio State at Texas and Penn State at Notre Dame will throw two teams into the national title picture. At least until each suffers a letdown the week after.

It will also throw the losers into the race for the Capital One Bowl. Nothing against the early-morning New Years Day game in Florida, but championship-quality clubs should still be playing for "it all" in late December and early January.

If college football had its way, Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators would have spent the postseason in the Peach Bowl. The Chicago White Sox in the Insight Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Some of the greatest championship stories in sports would have been denied by a truly evil three-letter word.


However, that rant is for another column. This Saturday isn't necessarily about winners and losers, for all four proud programs should be praised for risking championship dreams in the name of memorable gridiron battles.

Highly-touted recruits came to Happy Valley and Columbus to play road games in the heart of Texas and the pinnacle of religion and football. If kids wanted to play Central Arkansas and Northern Arizona they would have attended the local NAIA school down the street.

Yet, there will be a pair of winners and losers when the dust settles Saturday.

The Phanatic will make you wait a few days for those predictions. We have to build drama in the world of sports.

Until the game-by-game breakdowns on Thursday, sit back and look at the bigger picture.

When you were younger, big events kept you up for weeks in anticipation.

Sesame Street Christmas Special big. Saying goodbye to Friends big. Graduations, high-school playoff games and weddings big.

Yet, it always seemed the reality didn't live up to the hype.

Until now.

Saturday's duo of made-for-TV pigskin classics will feature two Heisman-worthy signal-callers, one Hall-of-Fame head coach and four of the winningest programs in college football history.

Mama said there would be days like this.

Jared Trexler can be reached at

Sunday, September 03, 2006

From the 700 level: The true 2006 Eagles' season breakdown

By Steven Lienert

Let's look at this rapidly approaching season realistically for a moment, shall we?

There are five wins just sitting out there for the Birds to snatch: at Houston, at San Fran, Green Bay at the Linc, at New Orleans and the Titans at home.

Let's even goes so far as to expect the Birds to drop one of those games. That's still 4-1.

As far as I see it, there are three certain losses sitting out there as well. Jacksonville at home (AFC at home jinx), at Indy and Carolina at home. Let's say they steal one of those. That's 2-1, and 6-2 overall.

Let's give the NFC East the benefit of the doubt and call it a split: 3-3. That still pushes the Eagles' record to 9-5 with the two pivotal game of the season left: Philly at Tampa and the Falcons at the Linc on New Year's Eve.

If the Eagles take both, they're 11-5. If they split, they're 10-6. Both records get them in the playoffs.

If they lose both, however, then we are looking at the ‘Sports Illustrated Theory’: Everybody in the NFC East finishes 9-7 and the Eagles are left on the outside looking in.

So the Lienert Line on this season is 10-6. And another NFC Championship Game appearance.

Beyond that, however, the crystal ball becomes foggy.

Enjoy the ride back to prominence, Eagles' fans.

I know I will.

With all due journalistic integrity remaining intact, of course.

Disagree with Lienert? Is Homer Simpson less of a Homer? Annoy him at

Friday, September 01, 2006

Philadelphia Eagles Preview

By John McMullen

Four straight NFC Championship Game appearances are a distant memory in Philadelphia after the Eagles imploded and finished a dismal 6-10 in 2005. Conventional wisdom regarding the collapse placed all the blame on the NFL’s most selfish teammate, Terrell Owens, and his public obsession with destroying his one-time friend and benefactor, quarterback Donovan McNabb. But, there were a number of other things that unraveled in the City of Brotherly Love as well, not the least of which was a series of injuries to key players like McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, wide receiver Todd Pinkston and kicker David Akers. To once again become competitive in the NFC East, the Eagles invested heavily in both the offensive and defensive lines and head coach Andy Reid feels those upgrades, along with a healthy and stress fee McNabb will be enough to put the Birds back on top in the division.


It's hard to ascertain what bothered McNabb more last year, the litany of injuries he suffered through, which included a painful bruised sternum and a sports hernia that eventually ended his nightmare of a season, or the petulant antics of the NFL’s real-life “Leon”. What can be said is both problems are in the rear view mirror but many questions have arisen concerning McNabb’s ability to lead and whether his own locker room respects a guy that far too many people in the African-American community have ludicrously labeled a “company man.” When McNabb is healthy, the Eagles have gone to the playoffs every season and he was playing spectacularly early last season in spite of the sternum problem, T.O. and Reid's almost comical lack of faith in the running game. Clearly, McNabb is the best quarterback in the division and while he will likely always struggle with accuracy at times, he remains one of the best five signal callers in the game. The stubborn Reid finally learned a valuable lesson after McNabb went down last season and he had to watch Mike McMahon and Koy Detmer. The Eagles have needed a better backup to McNabb for years and they finally got it this offseason when they inked fellow T.O. punching bag, Jeff Garcia. The veteran certainly won’t wow you anymore but he will provide the Eagles with a reliable No. 2 quarterback for the first time in the McNabb era. Reid’s blind spot, Detmer, is also finally history.


The real problem at running back in Philly is Reid himself. The Eagles coach simply loathes the running game and would like to throw the ball more and more. Obviously that philosophy is flawed and it helped destroy McNabb last season because he took big hit after big hit early in the season. The book on Westbrook is that he is a too small to be an every down back but if you look at Tiki Barber in New York or Warrick Dunn in Atlanta, that reasoning seems specious. It would be nice to see the ball in Westbrook’s hands 25-30 times a game to see what he could do but that’s pure fantasy with Reid at the controls. Behind Westbrook, the Eagles will have Ryan Moats and Bruce Perry, a pair of undersized runners who can break a long one if they get outside but they are virtually useless between the tackles. Philadelphia hopes that toughness and inside running ability will be provided from Correll Buckhalter but the former Nebraska star has a knee held together by chicken wire.


Obviously most of the talk in Philadelphia is about who isn't lining up at wide receiver for the Eagles, Owens. T.O.‘s one-plus year tour with the team was a roller-coaster ride; one spectacular Super Bowl season giving way to a soap opera that destroyed a once-proud franchise in record time. This year, the Birds top receiver was going to be
Reggie Brown, who set an Eagles rookie record with 43 receptions last season. Brown certainly has talent but he sure won‘t scare your average NFL defensive coordinator and it‘s hard to imagine Brown getting the best of a double-team on a consistent basis. The rest of the receiving corps was even less impressive. Pinkston was attempting to return from a torn Achilles' tendon and just wasn't healthy. Greg Lewis was abysmal in 2005 and free-agent signee Jabar Gaffney lacks the speed to be anything more than a slot receiver. The Eagles are trying to sell their fans on a pair of rookies, Jason Avant and Hank Baskett, but expecting significant contributions from them this season is just not fair. The Birds finally dropped the arrogant act last week ans made a deal for Donte' Stallworth, a talented, underachieving former first-round pick in New Orleans. Stallworth has greet speed but average hands. That said, he is a huge upgrade over the alternatives. With Stallworth still learning the offense and the overall lack of talent on the outside, you can bet Reid will develop game plans that have McNabb dumping the ball off to Westbrook and his tight ends. The Birds added Matt Schoebel, a free agent tight end from the Bengals, to complement starter L.J. Smith at tight end and both players are good receivers but struggle in the blocking game. Smith will also need to overcome his propensity for putting the ball on the turf.


The offensive line was Philadelphia‘s Achilles heel on offense last season. Age, injuries and bad technique all contributed to the poor play of the Eagles‘ offensive front in 2005. The bookends, left tackle William (formerly Tra’) Thomas, who is coming off back surgery, and right tackle Jon Runyan, who signed a new deal, are back and should have at least one more competent year in them. Todd Herremans moves inside to guard along with the emerging Shawn Andrews while Jamaal Jackson takes over the pivot full-time after the Eagles failed to land LeCharles Bentley in free agency (ed note: Bentley is out for the season after being injured in Cleveland’s training camp). The big question marks are inside. Andrews is rook solid but Herremans is a natural tackle who must learn how to use his hands better. Jackson just doesn’t look like the type that will ever dominate but he should be an upgrade over the athletically challenged Hank Fraley. A pair of highly regarded rookies, tackle Winston Justice and guard Max Jean-Gilles, will help provide depth. Justice’s development will be watched closely since the age of Thomas and Runyan make an heir apparent necessary.



In Philadelphia, the linebackers get vilified but the lack of a consistent pass rush is what hamstrung Jim Johnson’s defense last season. With that in mind, the defensive line will look dramatically different in 2006. The Eagles signed former Saints pass-rushing star Darren Howard to line up opposite Jevon Kearse at defensive end and for the second consecutive year, the team’s No. 1 draft choice was a defensive tackle, former Florida St. star Brodrick Bunkley. The Eagles hope the additions help Kearse, a former superstar who’s play dipped dramatically last season. With the added help, Kearse must become the playmaker he once was if the Eagles expect to bounce back. Bunkley will join '05 first-round choice Mike Patterson to give the Eagles a pair of young inside players but Bunkley missed 14 training camp practices before finally signing and may have a tough time adjusting. Some critics also feel Bunkley and Patterson are far too similar to excel together meaning the Eagles must find a competent run-stuffer among Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn and Ed Jasper to field a solid inside rotation. Trent Cole's emergence as a nickel pass rusher will be a key. If Cole gets consistent pressure from the edge, that enables Johnson to move Howard inside on passing downs.


Whether it’s fair or not, many observers feel Reid doesn‘t place a premium on acquiring athletic, play-making linebackers, especially on the outside. Pro-Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter is the only player with big-time skills among the linebacking corps. Trotter is a hammer against the run and can blow up plays with the blitz. If he has a weakness, it’s in pass coverage where he lacks the innate feel for the zone and has poor ball skills. Shawn Barber and Matt McCoy will battle for the weak side spot. The fans remember Barber fondly from his first stint in Philly but age and injuries have robbed him of explosiveness and the team would like McCoy, a second-year player to step up. On the strong-side, the most hated Eagle of them all Dhani Jones is back. The former New York Giant had a bad year in 2005 and the fans would love if he was replaced but there are no other options. Rookie Chris Gocong is a good athlete but is a project who will need two to three years to develop.


There is little doubt this is the strength of the Eagles defense despite appearing vulnerable last season. In today’s NFL, the pass rush is the be-all, end-all and the term shutdown corner is an oxymoron. The lack of a significant pass rush was the problem in 2005, forcing good players into impracticable situations. At safety Brian Dawkins may have lost a step and he needs to learn there is no crying in football but he is certainly still one of the top five safeties in the game. People finally figured out that Michael Lewis is awful in pass coverage but I have news for you, most strong safeties are and Lewis is a stud in run support. At cornerback, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, returning from a season-ending high ankle sprain will be back to give the Eagles one of the best tandems in the league while Roderick Hood is turning into an excellent nickel back.


A groin injury took away one of the Eagles’ best weapons, kicker David Akers, last year. But, Akers seems healthy and ready to go and should regain his spot as one of the top kickers in the game. Philadelphia will also welcome back a healthy punter in Dirk Johnson. Like McNabb, Johnson had his 2005 season derailed by a sports hernia and his replacements were nothing short of inept. While, Johnson is not at Akers’ level amongst punters, he is a solid, consistent guy who should help Philadelphia in the field position game.


After everyone involved embarrassed themselves during the T.O. fiasco, the Eagles just want to return to football and get back to the top of the NFC East but that will not be easy. While Philadelphia made huge strides and addressed holes on both lines, they still look like the least-talented team in the division. They do, however, have the best quarterback in the division and McNabb gives Philadelphia a huge advantage over its division rivals who sport Eli Manning, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell. Reid must cultivate that advantage and stop putting McNabb in unworkable situations. The Eagles can not abandon the running game and allow opposing defenses to pin their ears back and take shots at the franchise. Reid has preached a need to restore balance in his game plans, but we have all heard that before. The coach’s ability to follow through will likely tell the tale in 2006.

-You can reach John McMullen at or

New York Giants Preview

By John McMullen

In Gotham, people are already whispering Super Bowl after a season that saw the New York Giants reach 11-5 and break the Philadelphia Eagles’ stranglehold on the NFC East. But, while the Giants are clearly the most talented team in the division, their 23-0 drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs exposed some hard and indisputable facts. The G-Men lack depth on defense, have too many immature skill position players and sport a quarterback that looks as green as ever. So, the Super Bowl talk is probably a little lofty but a second straight division crown should certainly be on the radar.


Intervention time for the people and press of New York -- Eli Manning has been a disappointment to this point and the Giants won despite their signal caller last season -- not because of him. In a league designed to help the quarterback in every way, Manning’s completion percentage hovered around a woeful 53 percent. Average quarterbacks should be in the 58-60 category and the top-tier guys can easily reach 65 percent in a league that looks more and more like the AFL each season. So, it’s not a question of will the real Eli Manning stand up? -- as so many in the national media has opined. Manning is what he is, an inaccurate guy who has been vastly overrated because of his last name. Outside the organization, most thought Manning was on his way to prominence until his late season swoon but inside, the word bust has been mentioned more than once and the Giants are gravely concerned about the rate of his development. Accuracy, poor mechanics and a sloppy work ethic are the key concerns with Peyton’s baby brother. That said, Manning is in no danger of losing his job with the lightly regarded Tim Hasselbeck set to be his backup.


You are not supposed to have a career year at the running back position when you hit age 30 in the NFL. In fact, you are supposed to be entering a quick, downward slide into oblivion. But, Tiki Barber was the Giants’ MVP last season and if it wasn’t for Shaun Alexander, likely the NFL’s MVP. A wonderful all-around player, Barber can do it all, including run between the tackles despite his diminutive size but at 31, you have to think New York would like to limit his touches a little more in 2006, at least early in the season. It’s clear the team would like 6-foot-4, 260-pound Brandon Jacobs to handle the bulk of the short-yardage and goal line work but Jacobs looked tentative and scared as a rookie. In short, nothing like a 260-pound back.


No one will question the Giants talent outside but you can certainly question some of the attitudes, specifically with wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Both are top level playmakers but tend to sulk when things don’t go their way. And, with Manning’s accuracy problems, a blowup could happen at any time. You can bet Tom Coughlin hopes these guys will grow up and support their young quarterback but maturity has never been a word thrown around when talking about either player. Supporting Burress on the outside will be underrated veteran Amani Toomer, speedster Tim Carter and promising rookie Sinorice Moss. Those names should give the Giants one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league if Manning can get them the ball.


A couple of years ago this was a disaster area but now it’s an underrated group that keeps improving. When you have a running back that goes for 1,800 yards and an inexperienced quarterback who only hits the turf 28 times, you better start giving some credit to the big uglies up front. The real strength is in the middle where Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee and David Diehl have developed into one of the best interior lines in the NFL. Snee, particularly, looks like a Pro-Bowl level player. Things aren’t quite as good outside where left tackle Luke Petitgout and right tackle Kareem McKenzie are pedestrian players who get by on technique and guile.



The real strength in New York is on the defensive side of the ball, especially the front seven. In a league where making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable is of prime concern, no one does it better than the Giants who sport the best pair of pass rushing defensive ends in football, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Both are elite pass rushers and Strahan is probably still the best two-way end in the game. The Giants also possess outstanding depth outside with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, a pair of great pass-rushing prospects. Inside, things aren’t as pretty. New York’s best interior lineman in 2005 was journeyman Kendrick Clancy and he moved on leaving the team counting on enigmatic former first round pick William Joseph and Fred Robbins inside. It wasn‘t pretty in the preseason opener as both players got pushed around so this will be an area of concern that will be closely monitored. Other options inside include a former undrafted free agent -- Damane Duckett -- and fourth-round draft pick Barry Cofield.


Injuries crippled this talented unit late last season and the lack of depth showed up in the playoffs. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is the leader of the New York defense and probably the team’s defensive MVP. A tough, instinctive linebacker with the speed to run sideline-to-sideline, Pierce’s ankle injury late in the season, crippled the Giants' defense but he will be back at 100 percent and sandwiched by a pair of big play outside linebackers, Carlos Emmons and free agent signee LaVar Arrington. Both Emmons and Arrington have had recent injury problems and haven‘t been able to practice much early in the preseason. New York did bring back Brandon Short to provide some veteran depth but he has also been slowed by injuries early in camp.


The Giants didn’t like the way their secondary performed last season and revamped the unit saying goodbye to former starters Will Allen and Brent Alexander. Veteran Sam Madison replaces Allen at the corner opposite Corey Webster. Madison has better ball skills than Allen but is not nearly the player he was in his prime with Miami.. Webster is a promising second-year player who improved dramatically down the stretch last season. Former Baltimore Raven Will Demps replaces Brent Alexander at one safety spot. The Giants feel they stole Demps in free agency but that may be overstating things. Demps does pack a wallop in run support but is so-so in coverage. He will be flanked by another hard-hitter, Gibril Wilson, who regressed a bit last year, especially in pass coverage. Veteran corner R.W. McQuarters and safety prospect James Butler look like the top reserves.


The Giants have a couple veterans who may not possess huge legs but rarely make a key mistake. The ageless Jeff Feagles may be the best directional punter in the game and that’s meaningful when the winds are swirling at the Meadowlands. At kicker Jay Feely received a lot of criticism in his first year with New York and likely cost the Giants a first-round playoff bye with an awful day in Seattle but, overall, he was more than adequate.


Like most talented teams, the Giants are set at virtually every position with the possible exception of defensive tackle where Joseph and Robbins continue their long history of underachieving. That might open the door for Dockett who lacks their physical ability but is a harder worker and a more consistent run stopper. Also keep an eye on outside linebacker where injures to Arrington, Emmons and Short could open the door for Chase Blackburn.


The Giants are clearly one of the NFC’s most talented teams and another NFC East crown and a return trip to the playoffs should be everyone’s goal but so much hinges on their enigmatic quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants have surrounded the young signal caller with a plethora of offensive weapons and have rebuilt an excellent, albeit underrated line in front of him. Now it’s time for Manning to stop making excuses and started learning from his mistakes. A greater attention to detail and a more structured off the field regimen would do wonders for Manning. He certainly has the arm and physical gifts to be an upper echelon player but he is nothing like his brother, Peyton, above the shoulders. It’s tough to say a season hinges on one player but the Giants have built quite a team and the only thing missing right now is a solid, competent quarterback who can take them to the next level.

-You can reach John McMullen at or

Dallas Cowboys Preview

By John McMullen

America's Team is back on the national radar after Jerry Jones brought in the NFL's version of Barnum and Bailey. The circus has set up shop in North Texas in the form of Terrell Owens and all the baggage he brings. And, make no mistake about it -- Bill Parcells is not happy. After last year's 9-7, non-playoff finish, Jones gave Parcells a nice
raise but usurped the coach's authority by bringing in the league's worst teammate. Can it work? Maybe for a year -- but the early returns don't look promising. Owens has made himself a spectacle at camp and Parcells has already grown testy of the constant media attention.


In Drew Bledsoe's first season in Dallas, the former Washington State star connected on over 60 percent of his passes for over 3,600 yards and 23 touchdowns. That's the good...The Bad? Only the wildly erratic Brett Favre threw more interceptions than Bledsoe and his mobility remains fodder for Dane Cook's act. Dallas' offensive line took the brunt of the blame for the 49 sacks Bledsoe suffered but his lack of movement skills along with a penchant for holding the ball far too long were larger culprits. If you don't think so, look at how many times Bledsoe hit the turf in Buffalo. Tony Romo is the backup and Parcells seems enamored with him but in NFL three seasons, Roma has never attempted a pass so any comfort level would have to be tenuous at best.


Julius Jones seems to have the talent to be a top-tier back but the former Notre Dame star has played in just 21 games over two seasons. Parcells has never liked players who don't show up on Sunday and Jones, who has suffered through shoulder, rib and ankle injuries during his short career, must learn to play through pain or the coach will be looking elsewhere very quickly. Former fourth-round pick Marion Barber will backup Jones again. The former Minnesota stalwart ran for 538 yards as a rookie last season and provides a
solid, if not spectacular alternative to Jones. The Cowboys also like Tyson Thompson, who may be the fastest back on the team.


Don't look for enabling here Dallas fans -- Jones understated it when mentioning he was taking a gamble with "Leon", who burned his previous two employers and used a scorched-earth policy when discussing the Pro-Bowl quarterbacks he played with. Unlike most observers, I won't sugarcoat it. Owens is sick and his issues reach far beyond the football field. But, his talents on the field are like a seductress. Jones fell under the spell but Parcells had no desire to see Owens in Dallas. Terrell's training camp antics and disdain of practice (unless the national media is there and he can show off) is already wearing on the old-school Parcells. A blowup is imminent and could come at any time. When it does and Owens begins the destruction of his third organization, you can
bet all Jones' critics will be saying I T.O.ld you so. Interestingly, opposite Owens is a former diva that actually did grow up, Terry Glenn. Owens could learn a lot from Glenn but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Glenn is still a big-play threat that must be accounted for. Patrick Crayton should be the third receiver and sports impressive speed but has struggled to stay on the field. At tight end Dallas has one of the league's elite receivers in Jason Witten. While not much of a blocker, Witten is a great security blanket for any quarterback. The Cowboys drafted Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano in the second round, in order to possess the threat of a two-tight end set this season.


The Cowboys really missed left tackle Flozell Adams after he went down against the Giants in mid-October. The drop-off from the two-time Pro Bowler to Torrin Tucker was great and the Dallas offense never really recovered. Adams will be back but the Cowboys offensive line must now overcome the loss of future Hall of Fame left guard Larry Allen, the last vestige of the team's '90s glory days. Kyle Kosier is penciled in to replace Allen and that doesn't look like a positive move. Even though Allen's career is winding down, Kosier has been nothing more than a journeyman utility guy to this point. The Cowboys also brought in veteran Jason Fabini to battle with Rob Petitti at right tackle. Petitti, a rookie last season, struggled badly and a healthy Fabini would be an upgrade. Andre Gurode and Al Johnson are on hand to man the pivot. Johnson has better movement skills, but Gurode is stronger and can move a powerful nose tackle with more ease. The wild card of the line is former Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera. Rivera was one of the best interior lineman in the game before injuries robbed him of effectiveness last season. At 34, it remains to be seen if Rivera can get back to his prior form.



With the impending switch to the 3-4 defensive alignment in 2005, Dallas inked nose tackle Jason Ferguson in free agency and drafted ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. While Ferguson struggled, Canty and Spears looked like future stars and perfect fits for the scheme. With a year under his belt in North Texas, the Cowboys hope Ferguson can bounce back and solidify things. Veteran Greg Ellis and highly regarded youngster Jason Hatcher will also be in the rotation outside.


With the 3-4, you can never have enough talented linebackers and Dallas has brought in quite a few reinforcements. Former Jaguar Akin Ayodele and former Titan Rocky Boiman along with rookie Bobby Carpenter were the new faces brought in to join Al Singleton. Bradie James and DeMarcus Ware. James and Ayodele will handle the inside while the Cowboys would like Carpenter and Ware to man the outside slots. Ware looks like he will settle in and be a solid edge rusher for years while Carpenter really played better than the more heralded A.J. Hawk with the Buckeyes so things look set on the outside. Inside
is more of a problem as James and Ayodele look pedestrian.


With Anthony Henry and Terence Newman, the Cowboys are as set as you can be at
the cornerback position. In this era, no corner can really standout, the rules just don't allow it but Henry and Newman both have the ball skills to make a play when the offense makes mistakes and that's all you look for in a corner these days. Veteran Aaron Glenn understands a zone concept and will be back to handle the nickel back slot. Safety Roy Williams is the prototypical Y2K strong safety, a load against the run but a liability in coverage. Keith Davis and Marcus Coleman will compete for the free safety spot but neither player will standout.


Dallas' signing of Mike Vanderjagt solidifies a long-time trouble spot. The Cowboys have never really respected the kicking position and have always went with inexperienced, less talented guys. After a season in which they went through three kickers, Dallas finally jumped and signed a reliable option. The one problem with Vanderjagt is that he can't kickoff and the Cowboys will have to waste a roster spot on a specialist. Punter Mat McBriar was spotty last year but Dallas has no intention of replacing him.


With a plethora of options at the skill positions, Dallas should have a high-powered offense if the offensive line holds up. Fabini needs to return from injury and take over at right tackle while a competent pivot man needs to step up. In what is a much larger story Parcells seems to be running out of patience with Bledsoe’s ability to get rid of the ball and may actually entertain the option of going with Romo.


Parcells may have inked a two-year contract extension through 2007 but that was before Jones ignored him and hitched his wagon to Owens. The Future Hall of Famer is now 65 and has made it clear, even before Owens arrived that everything from this point forward is year by year. With T.O. in town, year by year just turned into one year. The coach is already fed up with Owens' immaturity and constant craving for the spotlight. Win, lose or draw, this will be the Tuna's swan song in Big D. Whether he goes out on a winning note
or not largely depends on how he handles the circus. So far it hasn't been good.

-You can reach John McMullen at or

Washington Redskins Preview

By John McMullen

Daniel Snyder is the George Steinbrenner of the NFL -- without the success of course. Snyder will do anything -- monetarily -- to put his beloved Redskins at the top of the mountain but it just hasn’t worked to this point. Yes, Joe Gibbs silenced his critics and seemed to be making progress last year when he turned a 6-10 club into a 10-6 playoff team but millions were spent to revamp the roster and the preseason has been an absolute disaster. It‘s starting to look like Snyder just doesn‘t have the patience or savvy to stay the course and let Gibbs develop a consistent winner.


The biggest move Washington made in the offseason was bringing in former Kansas City Chiefs offensive guru Al Saunders to upgrade the passing game. The Redskins did rank 11th in offense last season but lacked consistent big play ability and had trouble scoring against elite defenses. The 36-year old Mark Brunell is the clear No. 1 and was solid, if unspectacular last season throwing for 3,050 yards with 23 touchdowns and only 10 picks. Like most veterans, Brunell gets by on guile and smarts but lacks the arm strength at this stage to really stand out. With Patrick Ramsey gone to New York, the Redskins would like Jason Campbell, a former first-round draft choice from Auburn, to be Brunell‘s caddy. But, there have been quite a few whispers indicating Campbell is just not picking things up. Right now, non-descript veteran Todd Collins is beating Campbell out for the second spot.


You really saw Snyder’s commitment to winning here. When star back Clinton Portis went down with a shoulder injury that really isn’t all that serious, the Redskins went out and brought in T.J. Duckett as insurance while teams desperate for running back help, like division rival Philadelphia, just sat on their hands. Shoulder injuries are always a concern for running backs so it’s nice to have insurance but either way, the Redskins would suffer greatly without Portis, an impact back who ran for a franchise-record 1,516 yards last season. Backup Ladell Betts is a solid player who does everything well but will never wow you. Duckett is a big back that can be a bulldozer between the tackles when motivated but has never really played up to his physical abilities.


Santana Moss turned into one of the NFL’s elite last season after catching 84 passes for 1,483 yards. Always one of the league’s fastest players, Moss ran better routes and took his job more seriously last year after being traded from the NY Jets. If similarly motivated this season, Moss may be even better since Washington brought in better secondary options. Super Bowl star Antwaan Randle El and former San Francisco 49er Brandon Lloyd are the new imports that will replace players like David Patten and James Thrash.

That’s a huge upgrade and Moss will likely see fewer double teams. At H-Back Chris Cooley is turning into quite a receiving threat and has the versatility to line up at tight end, fullback or in the slot.


This is an underrated unit that is one of the top 10 in the NFL. Left tackle Chris Samuels is the star and a Pro Bowl level player when he concentrates on his technique. On the other side, Jon Jansen is not much of an athlete, especially after an Achilles injury, but he has the kind of nasty streak that coaches love. Inside, center Casey Rabach is solid while right guard Randy Thomas is a dominant run blocker but is coming off a broken leg in the last regular season game of 2005. Left guard Derrick Dockery is the weak link. A talented underachiever, Dockery must step up his play in 2006. Depth is a big concern here. Players like Jim Molinaro and Ikechuku Ndukwe are not NFL caliber linemen.



Gregg Williams is the game’s best defensive coordinator and you can bet, his units will always overachieve. The defensive line has lacked pass-rushing talent in the past but Williams always had the ‘Skins defense near the top nonetheless. This season, Washington brought in Andre Carter to help the pass rush. Carter will team with the emerging Phillip Daniels to provide more quickness on the edge. Inside, tackles Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a are pedestrian players but can stuff the run adequately. Former starter Renaldo Wynn should fit in nicely as a reserve swingman.


When the Redskins released Lavar Arrington, the team lost a very popular player with the fans but the coaches were likely throwing a party. Gibbs and Williams hated Arrington's inability to play within a scheme and were glad to see him go, even if it was to division rival New York. With Arrington history, Marcus Washington becomes the team's dominant personality on defense. Washington may be the best strong-side linebacker in the game and is a force in both phases. Middle linebacker Lemar Marshall was a pleasant surprise after taking over for Antonio Pierce as the starter. While not Pierce, the former undrafted rookie free agent made quite a few plays in 2005. Rookie Roger McIntosh looks like the best option to take over the weak side, If the defensive line can keep blockers off him, McIntosh does have the skills to make a few plays. Until McIntosh is ready to play, veteran Warrick Holdman will hold down the spot. Holdman is not nearly the player he once was in Chicago.


Cornerback Carlos Rogers looks like an emerging star after starting 13 games as a rookie. The one knock on the former Auburn star is that he lacks size and has trouble matching up with the league’s bigger receivers. On the other side is veteran Shawn Springs, a player that still has some gas in the tank. Springs may have lost a step but he makes up for it with a good understanding of the defense. Free safety Sean Taylor is an elite player but his off the field problems are ever looming. The team replaced strong safety Ryan Clark with Adam Archuleta. The former St. Louis Rams starter is great in run support but lost in coverage. The Redskins really lack depth in the secondary, especially at cornerback where Kenny Wright is in line to be the nickel back.


Kicker John Hall is solid when healthy but he has struggled with injuries for the past two seasons. A problem looms at punter where Derrick Frost, who averaged just 40.4 yards per kick last season, is trying to hold off rookie David Lonie. Neither option looks very appealing.


Collins seems to be holding off Campbell at backup quarterback while Holdman is keeping McIntosh and veteran Jeff Posey at bay for the weak side job. With Springs dinged up, Washington may be in the market for another corner since Wright has been a liability in Minnesota, Houston and Jacksonville.


You can never accuse Snyder of not trying and this offseason was no different. He brought in Lloyd from San Francisco and Randle El from Pittsburgh to help Moss. He brought in Carter from the 49ers to fortify the pass rush and Archuleta from the Rams to replace Clark. Perhaps, more importantly the team added Saunders to pilot the offense and kept the league‘s best defensive mind. It all looks good on paper but something is missing. The Redskins have looked awful in the preseason and the new pieces just don’t look like good fits -- making a return trip to the playoffs unlikely. Especially when you consider what went on in the ‘Skins division -- the Giants look more talented, the Eagles have a healthy Donovan McNabb back and the Cowboys added T.O.

You can reach John McMullen at or