Thursday, September 28, 2006

Our annual Houston hit-and-run!

And yet they still leave a bad taste in your mouth

In the hair-raising underground classic You Are Going to Prison, Jim Hogshire discusses the grim reality of life as a prison "punk":
"Once this transformation (to punk) has taken place, there is no turning back. Even a man who fought with all his might and even suffered serious injury ... is still suspect. ... He has lost at least some, if not all, of his manhood, he's slid to the bottom of the heap and will stay there. The possibility of coming back is almost nonexistent -- although it is possible.

"It would require a concerted and sustained fight with the whole fuckin' population, and the guards, to overcome. Physically overcoming it is the only way. This means a man may have to fight day after day for months or years, and probably have to kill someone or be killed himself. ...

"As awful as life is for the punk, some guys choose to accept it as a way of surviving -- literally surviving, continuing to live -- until their sentence is finished. ... It is an awful choice. But it's the only choice some guys get. And the choice is final."
All you have to do is replace the word "punk" with "member of the Houston Texans" in the above passage, and you get a sense of how far the NFL's newest franchise has managed to slide into the sewer in its five short years of existence. The Texans came into the league in 2002 with big talk and big expectations. Today they're a travesty, an abomination, a joke. They're worse than detestable -- punchless and pointless. It's tempting to also call the team worthless except that owner Bob McNair paid the league a record $700 million franchise fee for the right to be punked by his fellow owners and mocked by everyone else.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

I spent last Sunday afternoon the way I spend every Sunday afternoon from September to January: on the couch with the Sunday Ticket in full effect. As a cosmopolitan Washington "man about town," it's important for me to be up to speed on the performance of the local club, so I flipped over to the Redskins game several times over the course of the day. Washington was playing Houston, giving me my first extended look at the 2006 Texans.

What a disgrace.

In every aspect of the game, the Texans are just awful. Their offense is toothless, their defense is useless, their special teams are irrelevant. After losing to the Redskins on Sunday by the deceptively close score of 31-15, cornerback Dunta Robinson assessed the team's direction. "That's disgusting," Robinson said. "What else can go wrong? If we don't play better, we're going to be the laughingstock of the NFL again." Going to be a laughingstock? That's what passes for optimism in the Houston locker room. Shit, in Houston these days, that's close to boasting.

The problem is not simply that the Texans are awful. Every year has its bad teams, and every team has its bad years. And the problem is not that the Texans have been bad for an extended time. That happens in sports. No, the problem is that the Texans are awful in so many ways. Losers on the field, stooges and stumblebums in the front office, suckers and marks in the stands. Asinine from top to bottom. They are the worst kind of losers.

Some losers are lovable. The expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976-77 lost their first 26 games, 11 of them by shutout. Their play was as ugly as their Creamsicle orange uniforms. And yet, in their seamless ineptitude, they were endearing, almost cuddly. Even their coach seemed to be in on the joke. The 1-15 New Orleans Ain'ts of 1980 famously inspired their fans to come to the games with paper bags on their heads -- but at least they came to the games.

Some losers are pitiable -- so pathetic that you can't help but feel sorry for them. You might even choose to root for them in a patronizing sort of way. The 2004 San Francisco 49ers (2-14) fall into this category, as do the Detroit Lions of the Matt Millen era (21-61). The 2001 Carolina Panthers (1-15) count, too. Pitiable teams like these are often full of nice guys for whom all the hard work in the world just isn't going to make much of a difference. Other times they're full of lollygaggers, head cases and jakes who get exactly what they deserve. (In the case of the Lions, all of the above, and more!)

Some losers are chronic charity cases. They spend year after year in the cellar without getting so much as a sniff of playoff contention ... but they never get much out of the high draft position that comes with their wretchedness, either. The Bengals spent 15 years as just such a team. The Cardinals have fit this bill for 30 of the last 31 years.

And some losers are just contemptible. Like the prison punk, they are helpless at the bottom of the heap. The strong prey upon them, abuse them, break them -- and despise them for their own weakness. This is where you find the Houston Texans.

Type of NFL loserBaseball equivalent
Lovable Chicago Cubs
Pitiable Kansas City Royals
Chronic Milwaukee Brewers
ContemptibleTampa Bay Devil Rays

The history of the Texans is in many ways a sweeping epic of the execrable, a story of shame and degradation that traces back to the team's genesis in the franchise free agency period of the mid-1990s. The Houston Texans, simply put, were born of civic gutlessness and community hypocrisy. And, boy, does it show.

The Houston Oilers had been a charter member of the American Football League in 1960 and had been playing in the once-state-of-the-art Astrodome since 1965. A lot of time passed, however, and Oilers owner Bud Adams eventually declared that the Eighth Wonder of the World had become a hellhole and that if he didn't get a new football-only stadium he would move the team to Tennessee and take up banjo and force people to watch Kerry Collins try to throw the ball from his side of over-the-hill. In an admirable but ultimately hollow assertion of principle, Houston told Adams to say hello to everyone in Nashville. Thus were born the Tennessee Oilers.

Houstonians patted themselves on the back awhile and crowed about drawing the line at building a new football stadium when the city had so many other pressing needs. Then they set about building a new $350 million football stadium despite the city's so many other pressing needs. And what a beauty it is, too. People love to make fun of the "cookie-cutter" multipurpose stadiums of the 1970s. But hasn't the league just traded one set of characterless clones for another? Are airtight, charmless, gold-plated turds like Reliant Stadium, the Edward Jones Dome and Ford Field really an improvement? Well, they have something like twice as many bathrooms, and seafood salad at the concession stands, plus baby-changing stations, so ... yeah, perhaps so.

Houston isn't the first city that refused to build a stadium, then lost its football team, then turned around and built a new stadium after all to attract a new team. Baltimore did it, as did St, Louis. Those cities, however, at least waited a few years to towel themselves off, whereas Houston pretty much started pouring concrete as soon as Adams got the vans loaded up.

(In case you're wondering: The situation in Cleveland was considerably different. Starting in the 1970s, Browns owner Art Modell argued that if the city would essentially give him control of Cleveland Stadium, he would use the revenue to improve the facility and would never ask for a new one. The city went ahead and handed over the keys. Modell's subsequent mismanagement of the stadium landed him so deep in debt that even a new stadium wouldn't have gotten him out of the hole. Baltimore essentially promised to make that debt go away. That's why he moved the team. The fitting postscript to the tale was that even the Baltimore bailout couldn't save Modell from his own incompetence, and he wound up having to sell the Ravens anyway. Modell is rightly despised in Cleveland as a thief and a whore. He's also a hypocrite, having been the loudest, most public and most dogged critic of Al Davis' attempts to move the Raiders.)

St. Louis and Baltimore also built their new stadiums to lure existing franchises to town. Both cities had been forced to bend over for the league during the expansion-application process in the 1990s, only to see teams awarded to the booming North/South Carolina market and to ... the fifth-largest metro area in Florida (which is really working out well). They learned from that experience that expansion is a screw job, so they went out and stole teams from other cities just as theirs had been stolen in the 1980s. And it paid off: The St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens both won the Super Bowl within five years of relocating. And the Rams did it by beating Bud Adams' Tennessee Titans.

Houston went the other route and applied for an expansion team. At the time, the league had 31 teams, and everyone knew that the next new franchise would be the last added for some time. The NFL made it clear that it really, really, really wanted that franchise to be in Los Angeles, but the people of L.A. showed little interest in laying out the necessary billion dollars for a brand new facility when the area already had at least three stadiums that could do the job (though they're tragically short of baby-changing stations). In October 1999, the league awarded the team to Houston and owner Bob McNair. Cost: $700 million, significantly higher than the $530 million charged to the owners of the reborn Browns franchise right around the same time. The NFL had, of course, promised the city of Cleveland after Art Modell skipped town that it would receive a new franchise, so that limited the pool of bidders. In the case of Houston, however, the league used the phony competition with Los Angeles to goose the price and get the city nice and lubed up.

Once the franchise was awarded, McNair and company set about acquiring the accoutrements of an NFL club: nickname, colors, logo, uniforms and all that. Oh yeah, and players. Predictably, it didn't get anything right:

Nickname: Texas pro sports franchises have nicknames that speak to aspects of the state's identity. The Texas Rangers, Dallas Cowboys, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks all evoke the Old West. The Houston Astros and Houston Rockets are fitting names in the home of Mission Control (though the Rockets originated in San Diego). And the Oilers referenced the state's signature industry, petroleum. So in the spirit of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, the new franchise held focus groups to come up with a name, and the team put forth five possibilities: Stallions (Old West), Bobcats (owner's name; see Charlotte's new NBA team), Apollos (space program), Wildcatters (oil industry) and Texans (inoffensive, marketing-driven cop-out). Saddled with a name devoid of any imagery, imagination or daring, is it any wonder that the players sleepwalk through their games?

Colors: Red, white and blue are the kick-assingest colors in world history. But there's a huge difference between this version of the color scheme, with its vibrant red and deep blue, and this one, which looks like it accidentally went into the wash with a brand new black sweatshirt. Drab and uninspired, these are the colors of a gas station attendant. And, you know, "Pump Jockeys" wouldn't have been a half-bad name for the team. At least it's oil-related.

Logo: This thing is supposed to be a ... a codpiece, right? No, a breastplate. A lobster claw? Some newly discovered species of pubic lice? What? A cow's head? Really? What's with the Paul Stanley makeup?

Uniforms: The name offers no inspiration, the colors are lifeless, the logo is dumb. Put them all together, and you get a uniform that looks like something you'd see on a fake team in a shitty football movie. To top it all off, the Texans wear white jerseys at home. Because if you're going to surrender without a fight, you'd better dress the part.

Mascot: For the fuzzy face of a $700 million franchise, Toro looks terribly cheap. Secondhand, even. "Run you stupid f------ blue bull! Run!"

And then there are the players. The most amazing thing when you analyze the Houston franchise is that for all the putrescence that defines this team and clings to it in a foul green cloud, the Texans players are just not that bad. No, none of these guys is headed to the Hall of Fame, but they aren't supreme stumblebums, either. There is talent, but it cannot and will not shine. There is potential, but it cannot and will not develop.

The one thing that great teams have in common is that they are all greater than the sum of their parts. The recent history of the New England Patriots provides a perfect example. Bill Belichick took a few high draft picks, some low picks, a mess of undrafted free agents and assorted cast-offs and spare parts from other teams and assembled a legitimate dynasty out of them. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s won four Super Bowls with a cocktail of bonus babies, tough little bastards and tough little bonus bastards (plus an honest-to-God war hero, a soldier, and I don't mean that in the Kellen Winslow sense).

Most NFL teams, of course, add up to exactly the sum of their parts. No rounding necessary. The Minnesota Vikings spring to mind. Since Bud Grant retired (the first time), the Vikings have never been any better or any worse than their record indicated. Remember when they went 15-1 in 1998? They were really, really good -- but not perfect. The 3-13 Les Steckel Experience of 1984? Every bid as bad as the record.

And the truly bad teams, the bottom-feeders, the scummiest of the scummy, the Texans and their ilk, fall far short of the sum of their parts. People asked last year: How can the Oakland Raiders be so bad when they have so much talent? Because that's what it means to be bad: Talent becomes irrelevant. So it is with the Texans. Is David Carr the worst quarterback in NFL history? Oh, no, not by a long shot. He's not the worst quarterback in the league this year, or the worst starting quarterback in the league this year. (Though I wonder who that could be?) How about No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams? The guy was a wrecking crew at North Carolina State, but now he just looks sad and lost. Of course he does! He's wearing a Texans uniform. Marco Polo would get lost in a Texans uniform. Should the Texans have picked Reggie Bush in the draft -- especially now that Domanick Davis is out for the year? Does it matter? In a Texans uniform, everyone's on injured reserve; they just don't know it yet. Remember, the first player the team ever picked -- offensive lineman Tony Boselli, in the 2002 expansion draft -- retired without playing a down in "red," white and "blue." Wideout and kick returner Jermaine Lewis was taken in the same draft and promptly fell off the face of the Earth.

(OK, to be fair, there's one Texans move I applaud wholeheartedly: With its 17th pick in the expansion draft, Houston plucked quarterback Danny Wuerffel off the Bears roster despite having no plans, or desire, to play him. The Texans figured that foolish new Washington Redkins coach Steve Spurrier was going to want Wuerffel's familiar face around and would be willing to trade something -- anything! -- to get him. This proved to be the case. Houston didn't get anything of note out of the trade, but it was still a pretty crafty move. Texans fans are still waiting for the next one.)

The guys the Texans sign as free agents or trade for often have done well in other towns on other teams, and then they come to Houston and ... disappear. Phillip Buchanon's career got off to a promising start in Oakland, then: Poof! Traded to Houston. Ron Dayne had finally worked his way up to something in Denver, then: Bang! Suddenly he's in Houston. Seth Payne. N.D. Kalu. Eric Moulds. Jeb Putzier. Dexter McCleon. These are guys we've heard of. Pro Bowlers, some of them. Guys who played in Super Bowls. Stars, some of them. They're living in Houston now, all of them. Getting paid to play a game they love, sure, and you have to admire them for that. They work out diligently, they go to the gym and lift weights and grunt. They do that everybody-bouncy-bouncy thing before games to get psyched up. They try hard and love their mommas.

And they lose. Over and over. Week in and week out. Not because they are bad men but because they are a bad team. Because the Texans are a bad franchise. Because the Texans are a bad idea.

The Houston players and the Houston fans must tell themselves this: It will get better. One day it will get better. It must get better. It cannot get worse.

Please, dear God, don't let it get worse.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Week 3 from the bottom of the well

Yabba-dabba don't! For the first bye week of the season, I turned in a pathetic 8-6 for my picks. If Carolina, Chicago, Baltimore and Miami had not all hit field goals at the final gun, I'd have gone 4-10. Then again, if Kurt Warner could have just held onto the ball with his big damn Hamburger Helper hands, I could've been 9-7. Of course, if Marc Bulger could have just held onto the ball with his big damn Hamburger Helper hands, I'd be 8-6 again. Anyway, I once again proved that I am next to useless in picking big divisional games: 1-3 this weekend in games in which first place was at stake.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Carolina 26, Tampa Bay 24: Well, crud. First I say nice stuff about Chris Simms right before the season starts, then I take it all back when he pollutes the league in the first two weeks, then he nearly dies out there against the Panthers. Makes you wonder what the hell Jon Gruden was thinking when he not only put the clearly injured Simms back into the game in the fourth quarter, but also called a bootleg that got the quarterback pounded into the turf. If you're like me, you're still waiting for Steve Young to say whether he still thinks Simms is a candy-ass mama's boy like he said last year.

Chicago 19, Minnesota 16: Vikings coach Brad Childress' strategy is becoming clear: Make every one of his team's games so fucking boring that no one can stand to watch them, let alone scout his team. Sorry, Minnesota. If you live by the freak late turnover, you die by the freak late turnover. And Chicago, wipe that smile off your strangely pasty face.

Green Bay 31, Detroit 24: There are worse teams than the Packers.

Washington 31, Houston 15: Turnaround fever has of course gripped Washington, as it always does whenever the Redskins put up their first win. (Remember the 2001 season? After starting 0-5, the 'Skins won five in a row. After only the second of those wins, with the team just 2-5, a caller to WTEM asked: "What's it gonna take for this team to make the playoffs?") People, people, before we start casting Mark Brunell's bust for Canton, remember that it's the Texans.

Miami 13, Tennessee 10: This was the only game this week in which I didn't see a single down. Why would you want to? Miami is in deep, deep trouble, and that starts with a T and that rhymes with G and that stands for, "Gee, I didn't think Miami would suck this bad, and yet they do." Why is Kerry Collins still starting for the Titans?

Baltimore 15, Cleveland 14: Holy cow. Teams in the rear-view mirror are even worse than they appear. After smoking Tampa Bay and Oakland by a combined 55-6, the Ravens rolled into Cleveland seemingly guaranteed of another dominating victory over another girls JV squad. Then they went poo in their pants. Fortunately for them, in Cleveland everyone has a dirty brown towel to help you wipe.

Seattle 42, New York Giants 30: Once again, Eli Manning stages one of his famous comebacks by running back interceptions for touchdowns and getting sloppy play from the opposing quarterback and bizarre strategy from the opposing coach. If there's anything we can learn from the past two weeks, it's that against the Giants, there's no such thing as "running up the score" because Manning is such a "great fourth-quarter quarterback."

Philadelphia 38, San Francisco 24: Last year when these two teams met, the Eagles won 42-3. This year, at least San Francisco was able to get in a couple glancing blows while it was getting its head kicked in.

Cincinnati 28, Pittsburgh 20: It wouldn't be nice to point out that for the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger killed his team with a late interception. An early interception, too. But there it is. How's this for an optical illusion: Charlie Batch, 1-0; Roethlisberger, 0-2.

Indianapolis 21, Jacksonville 14: Sigh. I guess I'm just never going to be right about the Colts. You know they're never going to actually win the "big game." You're just never sure which game is going to be the "big" one they're going to lie down for. Last Monday night, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio urged his team to "leave it all out on the field" when they played the Steelers. It seems they forgot to retrieve their special teams when they left Pittsburgh.

New York Jets 28, Buffalo 20: A graphic on Sunday Night Football told me that this week the Jets became the first team to win a game in which their opponent (the Bills) had a 300-yard passer (J.P. Losman) and a 150-yard rusher (Willis McGahee). It just goes to show you, you can rack up an awful lot of yards just going in circles. Even if you don't fumble a couple times while you're at it.

St. Louis 16, Arizona 14: If you're looking for an explanation from me, I don't have one. These are two NFC West teams. What's worse than fumbling the ball away late in the game when you're up by 2? Fumbling the ball away in field-goal range late in the game when you're down by 2!

Denver 17, New England 7: The Patriots finally put it all together! Week 1: Bad first half, good second half, win. Week 2: Good first half, bad second half, win. Week 3: Bad first half, bad second half, loss. Denver always seems to get the best of New England, but Sunday night the Patriots were sluggish from the coin toss. It's like they really laid it on at the pregame taco bar or somthing. (Hey, maybe the Pats finally hate their coach over the Deion Branch thing!) Whatever the case, Jake Plummer easily shrugged the monkey off his back for at least one more week. Then he kept his helmet on all through the postgame interview with NBC. That boy ain't right.

New Orleans 23, Atlanta 3: OK, I thought we'd established that the Falcons were going to win this year by having Michael Vick run whenever the opportunity presented itself? That he would throw only when he needed to? That he would feed Warrick Dunn? Midway through the fourth quarter, Vick had run the ball four times and thrown it 26 times. (Dunn had run it 12 times.) Of those 26 passes, eight were complete and the rest fell anywhere from 5 to 25 feet from their intended receivers. Atlanta fell behind 14-0 early, but they had the whole game to make up those two touchdowns. Jeremy Shockey would tell you what he thinks about that kind of coaching. Sure, the Saints were high on emotion. And sure, they're good enough to have won this game regardless, but Atlanta's obsession with teaching us whatever the week's lesson about Vick was essentially handed the game over.

SEASON: 29-17
(2005 through Week 3: 27-19)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their second year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team's ranked? It's not my fault they suck. (Key: WK3 = This week's ranking. WK2 = last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score.) NOTE: Due to a data error, the Eagles were ranked No. 21 last week when they should have been No. 14. "WK2" rankings below reflect the corrected data.
11 Chargers 100.001712Patriots 49.15
22 Ravens 84.191823Redskins 47.67
33 Bears 83.781920Cardinals46.72
45 Bengals 67.602015Steelers 46.12
511Saints 66.292117Giants 45.83
67 Seahawks 63.4222T1849ers 44.21
78 Colts 62.662324Panthers 40.92
814Eagles 58.852428Packers 38.42
910Cowboys 57.712525Dolphins 37.38
106 Jaguars 56.332622Browns 37.16
1121Broncos 54.39T2730Lions 29.12
124 Falcons 54.26T2726Texans 29.12
13T18Jets 53.64T2727Chiefs 29.12
1416Rams 51.813029Titans 25.33
1513Vikings 51.643132Bucs 23.40
169 Bills 49.773231Raiders 0.00

Friday, September 22, 2006

Week 3 picks

The picks for Week 3 have been posted over at Breakaway Beach. It's an interesting week, with what appears to be a lot of good games, though it's still just Week 3, so maybe they aren't good games at all. Funny how that works. Here's what I'm thinking:

WinnerLoserBut why?
Panthers BUCS Two teams, four games, 22 total points -- and Carolina has 19 of them.
Bears VIKINGS Chicago has blown out two 0-2 teams. Minnesota has squeaked out victories over two 0-2 teams.
STEELERS Bengals Pittsburgh's angry. Cincinnati's beat up. Game's in Pennsylvania.
Packers LIONS Odds are against a 0-0 tie, so go with the team that has shown any ability to move the ball, regardless of who they moved it against.
Jaguars COLTS Indianapolis is so over. The collapse begins Sunday.
BILLS Jets Buffalo may not be "for real," but their near-victory over New England was more convincing than the Jets'.
DOLPHINS Titans Miami's backs are against the wall. And yet Culpepper might still get hit from behind.
Redskins TEXANS Washington is getting worse every week, but they're not this bad. Yet. I think.
Ravens BROWNS The Ravens' offense is still sputtering. It won't matter.
SEAHAWKS Giants New York has lost a game it should have won and won a game it should have lost. Their luck, or whatever it is, will run out, and this week they'll lose a game they should have lost.
Eagles 49ERS San Francisco has improved, but not enough to beat a pissed-off Philadelphia team.
CARDINALS Rams Believe it or not, home-field advantage makes the difference for Arizona.
PATRIOTS Broncos Denver has had New England's number for the past few years. But they haven't been so good with numbers lately.
Falcons SAINTS Atlanta has finally figured out what to do with Michael Vick. It only took six years.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Week 2 in a can

This weekend I was saddened to see that the Fox announcing team of Sam Rosen and Bill Maas -- my nominee for the worst duo on TV two years running -- had been split up. However, I was absolutely delighted to discover that the mad scientists at Non-Stop Fox had seized on this opportunity to assemble an even worse pairing: Maas and Steve Byrnes. Listening to these two call Sunday's Carolina-Minnesota game was like listening to sports radio at the nursing home. Maas, as usual, played the role of your ignorant but overbearing neighbor with short thumbs, leading every sentence with "There's no doubt in my mind that ..." or "Everyone in the NFL knows ..." Byrnes, usually the trackside reporter for Fox's NASCAR coverage, was the rat-voiced host with material skimmed off Joe Buck's reject pile. If you live in one of the markets at the bottom of the NFC ladder, pay attention the next Sunday Fox has a seven- or eight-game package. Your afternoon might be spent at the mercy of the Nobody (Byrnes) and the Know-Nothing (Maas).

Having calibrated the instruments after the Week 1 shakedown cruise, my record in the picks improved from a middling 9-7 to a could-have-been worse 12-4. If Ben Roethlisberger had done something rather than just sit around on his fat appendix, I could have been 13-3.

Atlanta 14, Tampa Bay 3: What could be worse than having Atlanta kicker Michael Koenen (4 missed field goals Sunday) on your fantasy team? Having Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms (0 TDs, 3 interceptions in each of his first two games) on your fantasy team. And what could be better than having Warrick Dunn (21 rushes, 134 yards) as your fantasy running back? Having Michael Vick (14 rushes, 127 yards, 1 TD) as your fantasy running back. Because God help you if you have him as your quarterback. Hey, how 'bout them Falcons? They've outscored two division rivals, the Panthers and Bucs, by a total of 34-9 in the first two weeks of the season. If the Panthers or Bucs ever get it together and beat ... well, anyone this year, Atlanta's 2-0 record will be looking My-T-Fine.

Minnesota 16, Carolina 13 (OT): Ryan Longwell now has as many touchdown passes as Brad Johnson this season. Every year, some team starts out with a couple close wins and gains a reputation as a gritty contender when in fact it was just lucky. In 2004, it was the Lions. In 2005, the Falcons. And in 2006, the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota's narrow victory over the Panthers, who looked terrible against a control sample (Atlanta) in Week 1, followed its narrow win against the Redskins, who looked worse than terrible against a control sample (Dallas) in Week 2. Lucky for the Vikings, they have four games still to come against the Lions and Packers. They're halfway to wildcard weekend already!

Baltimore 28, Oakland 6: It says here that the last time the Ravens started the season 2-0 was in 2000, when they won the Super Bowl. This perhaps says more about the 2001-05 Ravens than the '06 Ravens. Regardless, what's more impressive than the Ravens holding their first two opponents to a total of 6 points? How about the Ravens scoring 27 and 28 points two weeks in a row. Buccaneers fans: If Oakland, the worst team in the NFL, loses to Baltimore 28-6, what does it say about your team?

Indianapolis 43, Houston 24: Nothing builds self-esteem like a game against the Houston Texans. Looking to prove your offense can be high-powered even without T.O.? Play the Texans! Embarrassed about playing tight against your own brother on national TV? Play the Texans! Afraid of facing Reggie Bush? Play the Texans! Fantasy players should consider adding David Carr to their rosters. If any QB is guaranteed to get plenty of snaps against third-stringers playing prevent defense, it would be Carr. Sunday, he threw for 146 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter after Indy had built a 30-3 lead.

New Orleans 34, Green Bay 27: After suffering the first shutout of his career against the Bears last week, Brett Favre rebounded with 340 yards and 3 touchdowns. And here's what proved he was back to his old self: Down just 14-13 in the third quarter, Favre lofted a lazy pop fly into the end zone. Saints DB Omar Stoutmire drifted under it and recorded the out. Suddenly the New Orleans Saints are 2-0, and you know what that means: 6-8 from here on out.

Cincinnati 34, Cleveland 17: For the Bengals, so far, so good. For the Browns, so many games, so little hope.

Chicago 34, Detroit 7: The Lions can make just about any quarterback look great, so long as he's not wearing Honolulu blue and silver. That's not to say Rex Grossman isn't a great quarterback. He's been Roman Fucking Gabriel these first two weeks. But we're still dealing with a small sample size for Grossman, and Green Bay and Detroit appear to be way out on the shitty end of the bell curve.

Seattle 21, Arizona 10: I was about to make a snide comment about Edgerrin James' 3.6-yards-per-carry average on Sunday, but then I got a load of Shaun Alexander's 3.4-yards-per-carry average. And that was against the Cardinals. Matt Hasselbeck, lauded in this space not two weeks ago as the best quarterback in the NFC, put up Tim Hasselbeck-like numbers for the second week in a row: 12-of-27 for 221 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions. Blame Delilah.

New England 27, New York Jets 24: Bill Belichick and Andy Reid both set out to lose big leads Sunday. Reid's a closer.

San Diego 40, Tennessee 7: The Vince Young era in Tennessee began not a moment too soon, but 117 minutes too late. Young led the first scoring drive of his career Sunday, throwing a touchdown pass with 3 minutes left to cut San Diego's lead to 33-7. The Chargers then tacked on another touchdown -- with their second-stringers, who were just trying to run out the clock. Tennessee plays at Miami next Sunday. San Diego enjoys its third consecutive bye week.

Denver 9, Kansas City 6 (OT): Any Bronco fan who tells you he isn't panicking is lying.

San Francisco 20, St. Louis 13: If the 49ers could play the Rams four times a year, they could rebuild in half the time. The pregame line had St. Louis favored by a field goal, which was fitting, because with Scott Linehan as their coach, the Rams will be scoring a lot of field goals. When Linehan gets in the red zone, he's like a freshman at prom, all elbows and awkwardness. The Niners had problems of their own in the red zone Sunday -- two field goals and a turnover on three trips -- but got around them by scoring two TDs from outside the Rams' 20. Brilliant!

Philadelphia 30, New York Giants 24 (OT): Once again, Eli Manning stumbles through three quarters, has the game handed to him by his opponent in the fourth and comes away hailed as some kind of cardiac kid. I'm as sick of that act as I am of Tom Coughlin's "disciplinarian" bit -- though I suspect the Giants will take Manning's charade over Couchlin's any day of the week.

Buffalo 16, Miami 6: You know, maybe the Bills are good after all. You know, maybe the Dolphins aren't good after all.

Dallas 27, Washington 10: The playbook that Al Saunders famously brought to the Redskins is 700 pages long. Those 700 pages produced 3 Washington points Sunday night. Meanwhile, busted coverage by the Dallas special teams produced 7 Washington points. Imagine what would have happened if Washington had only the second-highest-paid offensive coordinator in the NFL. The Cowboys' victory gives their quarterback one more week to believe the crowd is chanting "Drew" rather than ...

Jacksonville 9, Pittsburgh 0: Last year against the Jaguars, Tommy Maddox cost the Steelers the game when he threw a late interception to Rashean Mathis. Never to be outdone, Ben Roethlisberger threw two late interceptions to Mathis. Roethlisberger played like ... well, like a guy who crashed his motorcycle, burst his appendix and pulled his hamstring. And who hadn't practiced since February. On the other side of the ball, last year I wondered whether and when a team would beat the Steelers by exploiting the free-lancing tendencies of Pittsburgh defenders, particularly Troy Polamalu. Answers: "Yes," and "Week 2 of 2006."

SEASON: 21-11
(2005 through Week 2: 18-14)

Down and Distance's exclusive KAPOW-ER RANKINGS are back for their second year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KAPOW-ER system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team is ranked? Sheesh, it's only Week 2. (Key: WK2 = This week's ranking. WK1 = Last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score)
1T1 Chargers100.00T1710Jets 51.58
2T1 Ravens 99.55T172049ers 51.58
3T1 Bears 98.821913Cardinals48.98
44 Falcons 86.302026Broncos 44.63
56 Bengals 72.91215 Eagles 41.38
611 Jaguars 70.692221Browns 35.94
79 Seahawks 69.752318Redskins 34.99
814 Colts 64.152429Panthers 33.12
917 Bills 59.812525Dolphins 32.86
1022Cowboys 59.232628Texans 32.06
1112Saints 59.202727Chiefs 31.67
1216Patriots58.5628T30Packers 28.92
1315Vikings 57.182923Titans 23.80
148 Steelers53.793024Lions 19.58
157 Rams 52.5631T30Raiders 3.60
1619Giants 52.1732T30Bucs 0.00

Friday, September 15, 2006

Throwing flags at FedEx

Three cheers for the red, white and blue. And another three!

After nearly nine years of living in Washington, I went to my first Redskins game this week. Not just any Redskins game, either. The season opener. On Monday Night Football. Against the Minnesota Vikings, the team I grew up rooting for and will grow old waiting for to return to the Super Bowl. All this was possible because way back in the spring, when the 2006 schedule was first announced, my wife got me a pair of tickets for our third anniversary. Because that's the kind of wife she is. I can't remember what I got her. Some aspirin, I think, and a set of those little things shaped like corn cobs that you use to hold your corn on the cob. Because that's the kind of husband I am.

Not only was it the season opener and the first matchup of the ESPN era of MNF, the game was also played on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I had no doubt that the game would (and, of course, should) include some kind of commemoration. I didn't realize that I was expected to be part of it, and that my role in it was going to get me chewed out by a drunk before I even had a chance to sit down. But as they say, we're living in a whole new era.

(This is a good time to stop and emphasize that I love my country and hate terrorists. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were indescribably awful, and all of us were touched in some way. The Pentagon was less than 3 miles from the apartment where I was living on 9/11. I walked down to the Key Bridge to watch as the Pentagon burned and fighter jets screamed overhead. It was a horrible, horrible day.)

Tracy and I got to gaudy FedEx Field with time to spare and were frisked unenthusiastically at the gate. Satisfied that my seven-months-pregnant wife was not carrying anthrax or nunchucks or whatever they were after, the minimum wage crew allowed us inside. Upon entering, we each had an American flag shoved into our hands. Not a little postcard-sized flag, either. These were the size of face towels, at least. Not that we'd, you know, wipe our faces with them.

(And let me say I love the flag, too. I love it best when it's flying atop a flagpole, getting raised at the Olympics or being carried by a color guard. I'm less a fan of those times when someone hands you a flag unexpectedly, and then it's your responsibility for the next three hours.)

FedEx Field doesn't allow you to carry backpacks, large purses, duffel bags, briefcases, or anything else in which you could hide a granola bar or an inexpensive bottle of water, so we were pretty well loaded down with crap already. I was carrying binoculars, an eyeglasses case, a jacket, a pack of Fruit Gushers (I win this time, Snyder!) and a few other things. Before reaching our seats, we also picked up a bottle of $5 water, two hot dogs, a brat, a pretzel and a large soda. And each of us now had a 2-foot flag, with a little pole, tucked under our arms.

We got to our seats, and there was trouble in the air. Carrying that much stuff, there's just no way you can get settled in without putting something down. And because all the other seats were occupied, "putting something down" meant putting it on the ground. I put the jacket down, the binoculars, the Diet Coke, the water. I needed to take off my sweatshirt. Something had to give. I sure as shit wasn't going to put the hot dogs on the ground. So I handed the food to Tracy and set the flags down for only a second so I could get my sweatshirt off.

(I was a Boy Scout. I learned all the rules about the flag. I learned how to fold it, how to display it, how to care for it, how to dispose of it properly. I also learned that the flag, or its likeness, should never be used as wearing apparel, should never be draped over the body, should never be used as an advertisement and should never be used as a decoration. Trust me, I know that when displaying the flag, it should never be allowed to touch the ground or anything else beneath it. But I wasn't displaying the flag. It was still rolled up and wrapped with tape. The guy who handed it to me at the gate was pulling them out of a box sitting on the ground. If he can say he was storing those flags, then dammit I was storing mine.)

As I set the flags down to take off my hoodie, I turned to Tracy and started to say that I needed to make this quick because some busybody was going to give me a hard time about setting the flags down. I didn't have time to complete the thought, however, because some busybody came along and gave me a hard time about setting the flags down. He was in his 50s or early 60s, had a Minnie Mouse tattoo on his arm and was already two and a half sheets to the wind. "You shouldn't let the flag touch the ground!" he barked. "It's disrespectful!" Then he tottered up the stairs in pursuit of more beer.

You know what else is disrespectful to the flag? How about treating it like a party favor? How about putting a sticker on it that says "MADE IN CHINA"? Because as my wife and I stared at each other in slack-jawed, goggle-eyed amazement, I happened to notice just such a sticker on the little pole the flag was attached to. The flags handed out in the nation's capital on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 were made in the People's Republic of China. Red China, our forefathers called it. Ain't no party like a Communist Party, 'cause a Communist Party don't stop.

But whatever. I'd put the flags on the ground knowing full well I might get an earful, and I got an earful. Life goes on. We eventually got ourselves settled in, and we found a nifty little crack between our seats where the flags could stand upright without falling over or invading anyone else's personal space. As the game progressed, we saw that we weren't alone. All 90,000 fans in the stadium were arranging their evenings around keeping the flags out of harm's way. People heading up to the concourse for beer (and beer, beer and more beer) would do a little hesitant dance, torn over whether to leave their flags behind. Most would leave them, but not before making sure they'd stay in place if joggled. I don't want to know how the men who carried the flags into the toilet handled the situation. One fellow in the row ahead of us had an inspired solution. He just kept his flag in the back pocket of his white jeans, even when sitting. He may have spent the whole game farting into Old Glory, but he didn't let it touch the ground.

An hour from game time, there were twin commotions down on the playing field. On the sidelines almost directly in front of us, ESPN's Monday NFL Countdown crew was doing their show. Michael Irvin appeared to have already forgiven Tom Jackson for that whole are-you-retarded thing. Farther down the field, toward the other end zone, an enormous crowd was gathered. I pointed it out to my wife and wondered whether they were 9/11 survivors or families, who I assumed would appear in either a pregame or halftime tribute. They weren't. We never found out exactly what was going on down there, but I highly suspect this had something to do with it. There was no pregame tribute that I noticed. Then again, news reports said there was supposed to be an Apache helicopter flyover, but I didn't see one. I'm starting to wonder if I'm the crazy one. What couldn't be missed was The Star-Spangled Banner sung by the Joint Military Chorus, accompanied by 90,000 American flags being waved in unison. That was a remarkable sight, even for a cynical bastard like me.

Everyone appeared to be on the same page that the national anthem is a perfectly acceptable time to wave the flag. The song is about the flag. There was less consensus, however, about using the flag as a visual noisemaker, both pro-Redskins (rapid waving, side-to-side) and anti-Vikings (vigorous shaking). Scouts like me will tell you that's not an appropriate use of the Stars and Stripes. The flag doesn't belong to any one group of Americans. It belongs to all of us. Someone tell the politicians. When the Skins were introduced, a number of fans began waving their flags like it was the Olympics. From several rows back, someone screamed "Put your flags down!" I don't think he was complaining about his view being blocked, either. It might have been the Minnie Mouse tattoo guy. He was on a beer run pretty much all through the pregame and into the first quarter.

The pregame festivities wrapped up with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as an honorary coin flipper. One of the cool things about living in Washington is that when they say a VIP is coming, you can be sure that the P is going to be V fucking I. General Pace was accompanied by a young Redskins fan who, like your typical 8-year-old, shrugged off the general with row after row of medals and instead stared in awe at the guys in football costumes. After the coin toss, the lad bolted for the sidelines, and the general had to kind of reel him in. There's something totally endearing about seeing the most powerful uniformed military officer in the world, in his dress blues, trotting after a fourth-grader.

It wasn't until halftime that we learned via the public address system who was responsible for handing out 90,000 Chinese-made American flags at FedEx Field. Surprise: FedEx! Having figuratively wrapped itself in the flag, the company proceeded to do so literally as dozens of FedEx employees unfurled a field-sized flag while the Redskins cheerleaders -- some in red, white or blue dresses, others in flag-themed halter tops, I shit you not -- did an interpretive dance to Lee Greenwood's bathetic God Bless the USA. The dreariness of the Greenwood anthem was especially apparent because it immediately followed a stunning performance of God Bless America by Isaac Ho'opi'i, a Pentagon police K-9 officer who saved the lives of 20 people on 9/11 and received the Congressional Medal of Valor. As he sang, the names of the victims from the Pentagon appeared one by one the scoreboard. Ho'opi'i gave me goosebumps. Greenwood made my skin crawl. But then again, he always has.

The game itself proved to be a sloppy affair. The Redskins were able to stay in it because Troy Williamson caught nothing but air when it counted and the Vikings killed themselves with penalties in the first half. The Vikings were able to stay in it because Mark Brunell was helpless on third down and the Redskins killed themselves with stupid penalties in the second half. Someone had to win, and it turned out to be the Vikings, 19-16. Cue the absurdly high hopes in Minnesota and the absurdly panicked response in Washington.

As we filed out of the stadium, I tucked our flags into my back pocket for the short walk to the shuttle bus that would take us to the Landover Metro station. I told myself to remember to take them out once we were on the bus so I wouldn't sit on them. In my mind, that really is worse than letting the flag touch the ground. Just as I think using the flag as a bedspread, which many "patriotic" people do, is worse than letting it touch the ground. But that's just me and my opinion. It's a free country. Thank God.

By the time I got to the bus, someone had stolen the flags out of my pocket.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Week 1 at a glance

Picking the winners for the first week of the NFL season is part intuition, part intellect and entirely pointless. Nevertheless, I tried, and finished the week 9-7. That's barely better than flipping a coin, you might say. But if I'd just gone with the home teams, which is supposed to be so damned accurate, I'd have been 6-10. So get off my back. Here are some one-sentence recaps:

Pittsburgh 28, Miami 17: Daunte Culpepper looked like the Daunte Culpepper of 2005, while Charlie Batch(!) looked like the Daunte Culpepper of 2004.

Chicago 26, Green Bay 0: Brett Favre proves the doubters wrong, again, when it turns out the Packers can sink lower.

Cincinnati 23, Kansas City 10: We stopped obsessing about the state of Carson Palmer's head and started worrying about the condition of Trent Green's brain.

Seattle 9, Detroit 6 (suicide pick): Who needs the best offensive guard in the NFL when you have a kicker who can make three out of five field goals?

Jacksonville 24, Dallas 17: Jaguars started slow, finished strong; Cowboys started strong; Bledsoe finished?

New England 19, Buffalo 17: Tom Brady cost his team 7 points, while J.P. Losman cost his team only 2, but history gets written by the winners.

Arizona 34, San Francisco 27: The Cardinals were strong in several areas ... but their new $30 million tailback was not one of them.

Philadelphia 24, Houston 10: David Carr did throw more touchdown passes than Vince Young ...

Indianapolis 26, New York Giants 21: Peyton Manning throws four interceptions, but the Giants can only hold on to one of them.

New Orleans 19, Cleveland 14: Reggie Bush's long-awaited debut totally overshadows Kellen Winslow Jr.'s.

St. Louis 18, Denver 10: When you think of the Rams, you automatically think defense and the kicking game.

Baltimore 27, Tampa Bay 0: As the University of Texas goes, so goes Chris Simms.

Atlanta 20, Carolina 6: Michael Vick beats the archrival Panthers with his trademark stifling defense.

New York Jets 23, Tennessee 16: Vince Young's future moves one step closer, while Kellen Clemens' moves one step back.

Minnesota 19, Washington 16: It's a shame the Redskins didn't have some kind of "pre-season" games to get their offense in sync.

San Diego 27, Oakland 0: When you get to hand off to LaDanian Tomlinson and Michael Turner on 70% of the plays, "leading a team" gets much easier.


(2005 through Week 1: 11-5)

Down and Distance's exclusive KAPOW-ER RANKINGS are back for their second year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KAPOW-ER system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team is ranked? Sheesh, it's only Week 1. (Key: WK1 = This week's ranking. '05 = 2005 final ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score)
119Ravens 100.001726Bills 47.22
28 Chargers 100.001811Redskins 45.71
39 Bears 100.00196 Giants 44.68
416Falcons 76.92203249ers 44.26
523Eagles 70.592124Browns 42.42
612Bengals 69.702215Cowboys 41.46
721Rams 64.292328Titans 41.03
85 Steelers 62.222427Lions 40.00
92 Seahawks 60.002517Dolphins 37.78
1029Jets 58.97263 Broncos 35.71
117 Jaguars 58.542710Chiefs 30.30
1231Saints 57.582830Texans 29.41
1322Cardinals55.74294 Panthers 23.08
141 Colts 55.323020Packers 0.0
1518Vikings 54.293125Raiders 0.00
1613Patriots 52.783214Bucs 0.00

Monday, September 11, 2006

Rich? Man ... Poor, man.

'Eisen' means 'Iron' in German ... so if Iron Mike Ditka married Rich Eisen, he'd be Iron Mike Iron. Week 1 of the 2006 NFL season requires us to get used to a whole new television regime. Monday Night Football is on ESPN. James Brown has escaped the special-needs classroom at Fox and now hosts CBS's pregame show. The Sunday night games have moved to NBC, which has wrapped all the evening's gridiron-related infotainment into something it calls Football Night in America, which should sound extremely familiar to our friends north of the border. (I understand NBC has had some trouble in the past few years, but stealing ideas from hockey? Is it really that bad?)

As part of its blockbusta deal with the league (theme song by Pink!), NBC became the only NFL broadcast partner allowed to air a highlight show on Sunday nights. That means ESPN's NFL Primetime, a staple of football fans' weekly experience since 1987 and the only NFL recap show on television that showed anything besides touchdowns and sack dances, has been kicked to the slums of Monday afternoon (and yet it's still called NFL Primetime).

But wait, it gets worse. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson are no longer on the show. Like most people, I tired of Berman's act years ago. The "Well-Dressed Amani Toomer" references weren't funny in 1997 and were less so in 2005. "Daylight Come and You Got to Delhomme" not only wasn't funny, it was somehow offensive. And yet ... after so many years on the air, Berman and Tom Jackson just were the voice of NFL highlights. Fans had developed the ability to tune out the nonsense and focus on the useful stuff. There was a sometimes strained but still affectionate relationship borne of time, familiarity and routine. Just like your parents and mine.

Now Primetime has an all-new team. The host is Stuart Scott, a witless caricature of street cred whose vocabulary is as dated as his wardrobe. There are now two analysts where there once was one. The first is Senator Mike Ditka, who still looks like Da Coach of Da Bears but sounds like Da Coach of Da Saints every time he cranks opens Da Pennsylvania Piehole. The other analyst is poor, poor Ron Jaworski, who has one of the sharpest minds in football broadcasting but who is cursed with a tragic flaw: susceptibility to peer pressure. On his own, Jaws is enthusiastic yet levelheaded. In the company of dim bulbs like Scott, Michael Irvin, Merrill Hoge (sometimes) and, I fear, Iron Mike, "levelheadedness" just means he drools out of both sides of his mouth. I don't know whether I can bring myself to watch.

It was because NFL Primetime had been yanked off the Worldwide Leader's Sunday night schedule that I found myself casting about for a recap show when I got home from work late Sunday (actually early Monday). Remembering the ads I saw (over and over) during the preseason, I flipped over to the NFL Network to check out their highlights program, called NFL Gameday.

The show is hosted by Rich Eisen, a onetime ESPN wunderkind (and Stuart Scott sidekick) who has been the face of the network since its inception. Eisen is joined by Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci. Sanders formerly appeared on the CBS pregame show, before demanding more money and not getting it. His job at CBS was to shout at random about this and that, and to not seriously criticize anyone. This appears to be his role on Gameday, too. Mariucci is in his first broadcasting job after head-coaching stints in San Francisco and Detroit. His job appears to be staring into the camera with sad, nervous eyes and pattering earnestly.

(Crib sheet for first-timers: Sanders is the well-dressed, easygoing, bald black guy. Mariucci is the well-dressed, haunted, white guy whose thick head of hair stands in unspoken contrast to Eisen's rapidly thinning crop.)

You'd think that Mariucci, as the novice, or Sanders, as the motormouth, would be the most prone to foot-in-mouth disease on-air. You'd be wrong, as it's Eisen who apparently says whatever comes into his brain without checking it first against that big machine in front of him with the words on it. In less than half an hour of Sunday night's program, Eisen:
  • Called Trent Green "Carson Palmer," as in "Carson Palmer lay motionless on the ground."
  • Called Plaxico Burress "Eli Manning," as in (honest) "Eli Manning catches this pass from Eli Manning."
  • Called D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the No. 4 pick in the draft, "the No. 1 overall pick."
  • Called Reggie Bush "Reggie Brown."
  • Referred to Eric Mangini as "the first Jets coach to win his opener since Al Groh in 2000," as if he'd stopped some kind of losing streak. There has been only one other Jets coach since Groh.
  • Said Edgerrin James is "the first Cardinal with 26 carries in a game since Emmitt (Smith) in 2004," as if sheer number of carries meant anything. James, acquired for $30 million, had 73 yards on those 26 carries, a 2.8-yards-per-carry average. (To be fair, Sanders chimed in, "We didn't see any productivity from him in the preseason, but he was just saving it all for the big game." So this might be the company line.)

It's still early, but at this point, I may have no choice but to gas up The George Michael Sports Machine. Where have you gone, Irv Cross?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Breaking down the NFC quarterbacks


With the possible exception of Lawrence Taylor, no one does a more thorough job of handicapping NFC quarterbacks than Down and Distance. Now that the teams have made their final cuts and the season is upon us, let's take a spin through the conference and see who's going to be throwing balls on the field and who's going to be fingering balls on the sidelines. Don't forget to check out the AFC edition.

Arizona Cardinals
Some Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are destined to win still more Super Bowls (see Brady, Tom). Some Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are destined to spend the rest of their careers moving to progressively worse teams, teaching other guys how to play quarterback (see Dilfer, Trent). So it is that Kurt Warner now lives in Arizona (where, just FYI, the largest supermarket chain appears to be Bashas'). Warner will undoubtedly open the season as the starter but will give way sooner rather than later to rookie Matt Leinart, this year's nominee for young quarterback most likely to appear on the Web in a drunken stupor (which, also FYI, is no way for a new daddy to act). However, Dennis Green treats quarterbacks like disposable razors, so there's a good chance Warner will take back the starting role at least once this fall. (Remember, Green once tried to start Dan Marino's bones ahead of a young Daunte Culpepper.) John Navarre, who has demonstrated in sporadic action the past two years that the broad side of a barn is all he can hit, will probably get his shots, too. The last one standing gets to be the starter in the 2007 opener.

Atlanta Falcons
A Quarterback Controversy of One. Observers tell us that for the third consecutive year, "this is the year that Michael Vick needs to get it together and learn to play like an NFL quarterback, or the Falcons won't be legitimate contenders." That's one way to look at it. But if the Falcons make the playoffs -- and they play in the NFC, for Pete's sake, so it's not like I'm talking crazy here -- you'd better lay in an extra supply of Internet, because the one we have will fill up quickly with I-told-you-so's from Atlanta and environs. Vick won't be responsible for the (at this point purely hypothetical) playoff run in any case, but try telling that to falconzfan1134. Count me among those who say the "haters" might as well stand down because Vick is never going to learn to "play like an NFL quarterback." He's still the most exciting slot receiver in football; it's just too bad the Falcons' QB can't get him the ball. The backup quarterback is Matt Schaub, who, depending on whom you ask, might be Atlanta's latest Brett Favre or its latest David Archer. Both of those men also showed promise as the Falcons' second-stringer. Favre, of course, was expendable because Atlanta already had a Pro Bowl-caliber leader in Chris Miller, so he was traded in 1992 to the Packers, where he had a couple good years. Archer, on the other hand, backed up Steve Bartkowski ably, took over as the starter in 1985, stunk, and drifted out of the league. (Billy Volek, take heed.) The third-stringer is rookie D.J. Shockley, a hometown hero who will enjoy it while it lasts.

Carolina Panthers
Wow. Didn't see this coming. The Panthers' starter is Jake Delhomme. No argument there. He talka kinda funny (actual headline on Cajun up with Jake: Let's geaux), but hoo-wee, he t'row dat ball like a mudda -- and twice a year he gets to remind the New Orleans Saints that they had this guy sitting on their bench for years behind the likes of Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver, Billy Joe Wuerffel and Aaron Brooks. However, I just assumed that when Carolina broke camp, the No. 2 quarterback would be Stefan LeFors, just two years out of college and ready to go Tom Brady all over your ass, and that the No. 3 would be Chris Weinke, just five years out of college and already a grandfather of three. Well, Carolina went and t'rew us all a curve: Weinke, whose only significant playing time coughed up a 1-15 season and destroyed all that George Siefert once stood for, is the backup. The backup. LeFors has been cut, and the Panthers go into the season with only two QBs. Fine. In three years, when LeFors is playing the Delhomme role, and his new team has become the 2003 Panthers, and the Panthers are the Saints, Down and Distance will be laughing its ass off. And trying to figure out that last sentence. In the meantime, the Panthers win Super Bowl XLI, and no one cares what I think.

Chicago Bears
Coming into the 2006 preseason, the biggest question about Chicago's offense was the same as it was in the 2005 preseason: Can Rex Grossman, the Precious China Doll of the Monsters of the Midway, stay healthy for the whole season? Or half the season? Or three games? After a few exhibition games in which Grossman underthrew half his passes and overthrew the rest, the question quickly became whether Bears fans wouldn't prefer that Grossman break another leg. Or two. If Grossman's backup was still Kyle Orton, those fans might keep their opinions to themselves. Orton's performance in relief last year was so dreadful that the natives would have been screaming for his head if not for two things. First, the Bears won most of his games on defense and luck. Second, he wasn't Alex Smith. The backup QB this year, however, is Brian Griese, the rich man's Kelly Holcomb. A couple dandy showings in the preseason, and suddenly Griese is the most popular guy in town. Just like he was in Denver, Miami and Tampa. That the Bears have a brewing quarterback controversy is not surprising. The team hasn't had anything resembling a consistent, capable starter since, maybe, Jim Harbaugh in the early 1990s. In the intervening 15 years, they've wheeled out the league's motliest revue of noodle arms, tired legs, empty heads and fused spines. Steve Walsh. Erik Kramer. Dave Krieg. Shane Matthews. Cade McNown. Jim Miller. Kordell Stewart(!). Chad Hutchinson. Craig Krenzel. Orton. Orton. Orton. And of course Orton, who now lies in wait at the bottom of the depth chart for Grossman's inevitable broken ankle and Griese's inevitable hyperextended knee.

Dallas Cowboys
Having watched his team spin its wheels for two seasons, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hopes to gain traction by having Drew Bledsoe thrown under them. To that end, he imported Terrell Owens and asked Bill Parcells to graft him onto the Frankenstein's monster he's continually assembling and reassembling out of other people's discards (e.g. Eddie George, Anthony Thomas), other people's troublemakers (Owens, Joey Galloway), and his own discards and troublemakers (Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe, Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and, really, Bill Parcells). Dallas will begin the season, but not end it, with Bledsoe under center. T.O. has taken over for Johnson at the key position of Disgruntled Wideout, and from there should begin lobbying for backup QB Tony Romo, something of a Parcells favorite, in or around the season's 10th week. The Cowboys have officially given up on Drew Henson (who had essentially been a free agent without the freedom since Parcells first laid eyes on him) and at present are carrying only two quarterbacks. That will change when the O-line finally gets Bledsoe killed for good. I hear Jeff George is available.

Detroit Lions
Would it be ridiculous to call Jon Kitna the perfect quarterback? Well, he was the perfect quarterback to lead the Bengals for a season while they gave Carson Palmer time to develop. He was also the perfect quarterback for the Bengals to have on the bench as insurance once Palmer took over as the starter. And he'd be the perfect quarterback for the Lions if they could just go back in time and draft Carson Palmer. The Lions also have Josh McCown, whose confidence should be pretty well shot after two years as Dennis Green's yo-yo, and Dan Orlovsky, who was able to get into only two games last year despite sharing the depth chart with both Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia.

Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre spent another offseason playing slap-and-tickle with Packer Nation before making the same decision he always does: to come back for "one" more season. You can't question the man's grit, but after Favre declared that Green Bay has assembled "the most talented team that I've been a part of as a whole," feel free to question his honesty and/or cognition. Against San Diego in the first series of the Packers' first preseason game of 2006, Favre looked less like the quarterback of a contender than an old lady trying to dodge a purse-snatcher. Make that failing to dodge a purse-snatcher. He's said all along that he'll retire when the game isn't fun anymore, and this could be the year scientists learn exactly how many blows to the head it takes to drain all the fun out of football. Whenever Favre does leave -- and make no mistake, it will be his decision -- the Aaron Rodgers era can begin. Or can it? New Packers coach Mike McCarthy's previous job was offensive coordinator in San Francisco, where presumably he was part of the team that opted to take Alex Smith instead of Rodgers in the 2005 draft. Let that sink in for a minute. Now, you decide which is more troubling for Packer fans: That their quarterback of the future might be worse than Alex Smith, or that their new head coach was the guy responsible for the 49ers' offense in 2005. Behind Rodgers is Ingle Martin, famous for losing his starting job to a freshman when he was at Florida, then transferring to Furman. All or nothing, eh, Ingle?

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings' season hinges on which nugget of Brad Johnson trivia proves most pertinent: 1. Johnson is the only NFC quarterback to win a Super Bowl in the 21st century. 2. Johnson turns 38 two days after the Vikings' season opener. 3. Johnson has been benched in favor of both Jeff George and Brian Griese in the past six seasons. Depending on how that shakes out, Minnesota has in reserve the intriguing Tarvaris Jackson, on whom they used a second-round pick even though no one else was in any hurry to take him, and Brooks Bollinger, who lost a roster slot with the Jets through no real fault of his own. Bollinger's signing pushed J.T. O'Sullivan off the roster. That's assuming "J.T. O'Sullivan" is a real person at all and not that new sports bar at the shopping mall.

New Orleans Saints
Damn. You turn your back for an offseason and suddenly New Orleans has Drew Brees, the Saints' first bona fide star quarerback since ... well ... Double damn. Has New Orleans ever had a star quarterback? Forget Aaron Brooks, the Saints' QB for the past five years. Before the 2005 season, Pro Football Prospectus made the convincing argument that Brooks is an average quarterback masquerading as a star. Expect that to be proved this year in Oakland. As you dig around even deeper into Saints history, you realize what a cesspool the quarterback position has been. Many times, the team had the wrong guy calling signals. Other times they had the right guy, but they had him a few years too early or too late. Kerry Collins, for example, roared through town on a bender between his "drunk"-"racist"-"quitter" flameout in Carolina and his redemption in New York. New Orleans was where Heath Shuler endured a final season that was even uglier than Ryan Leaf's first. Ken Stabler, Richard Todd, Jim Everett and Jeff Blake all passed through the Big Easy on their way to retirement. Wade Wilson, the Billy Joes (Tolliver and Hobert) and Steve Walsh all passed through on their way to nowhere in particular. Bobby Hebert? Only if USFL stardom counts. Jake Delhomme? See the Carolina Panthers entry above for the rogues' gallery of clucks who stood in the pocket for the Saints while Delhomme picked his nose on the sideline. So, no, he doesn't count. You pretty much have to go all the way back to Archie Manning's tenure, 1971-82, to find something like a star. But even then: Can you be considered a star if you throw 36% more interceptions (156) than touchdowns (115)? Are you a star if your team never gets to the playoffs? Archie Manning had a hell of a college career, was a game and gutsy player as a pro, and is a damn fine human being, but he may not fit the definition of "star" for the purposes of our discussion. Bitchin' DNA, though! Now let's bring this back to the 21st century. Brees has become something of a folk hero by the simple fact of his willingness to come play for a city that had been kicked in the crotch by nature and nurture, God and government. And Saints owner Tom Benson. Brees was free to sign with the Saints because San Diego finally balled up the nerve to cut the cord after he hurt his shoulder in last year's meaningless final regular season game. How far the Saints go this year depends on how well Brees has recovered from the injury. Yeah, right. Brees and Reggie Bush may be a strong nucleus for a bright future (mixed metaphor), but it'll take more than these two to move the needle very far this season. And if Brees can't go? Next in line is Jamie Martin, who is kind of like Brett Favre, in that they are both 36 years old, both went to smaller schools, and both are listed on the roster as quarterbacks. If it weren't for Favre's Super Bowl ring, eight Pro Bowl appearances, 400 touchdowns, 53,000 passing yards and 223 consecutive starts, they'd be like twins. The Saints' third QB might have been Adrian McPherson, except he got run over by a golf cart driven by a man in a raccoon suit during pregame warmups.

New York Giants
If you're in one of those fantasy football leagues with more than, say, eight teams, someone probably chose Eli Manning on purpose. Someone needs his (or her!) head examined. That's not to say Manning is a bad player, because he isn't. He also isn't his brother. Every one of us needs to look deep inside ourselves and decide what we really believe: Is the real Eli Manning the guy who had 14 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions in the first half of last season? Or the one who had 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the second half of last season? Take a wild guess which side I come down on: The dark side. On the bright side, look who's been elevated to No. 2 on the Giants' depth chart: Jared Lorenzen! J-Lo's weight is still charitably listed at 285, but if he's an ounce under 300, I'll eat my hat. If he hasn't gotten to it already. Tim Hasselbeck, meanwhile, has been kicked down to the third string after signing something like a four-year contract that all but guaranteed he'd never start. You've got to love that competitive fire. See, Hasselbeck -- whose brother just started in the Super Bowl -- needed to stay in New York because his wife is co-host of The View. And if you think he'll ever hear the end of it in the locker room, get in line behind Eli Manning's fantasy owner for one o' them head examinations.

Philadelphia Eagles
Of course the starter is Donovan McNabb, who joined the ranks of the elite by internalizing the lesson Steve Young eventually learned, Daunte Culpepper will now be forced to learn, and Michael Vick has shown no willingness to learn. Namely, that an "athletic quarterback" is a quarterback first and an "athlete" second. Too much "athleticism," which I dare you to define, and a guy's asking to have his head lopped off, so expect McNabb to wait even longer in the pocket before pulling the ball down and taking off. But enough about Donovan McNabb. Let's talk about T.O.! The Eagles' 2005 season fell apart for a number of reasons: McNabb's injuries, David Akers' injuries, Brian Westbrook's injuries. But it was the 24/7 Me-Ring Circus that is Terrell Owens that turned it into Dunkirk. Owens had spent the offseason accusing McNabb of choking in the Super Bowl, then, seven games into the season, declared that the 4-3 Eagles would be undefeated if their quarterback had been Brett Favre (who at the time was coming off a five-interception game). Owens was soon gone, but then again, so was McNabb, who went out with a "sports hernia," which ... if you're a boy, you don't want to know the details. That left the season in the hands of Mike McMahon and Koy Detmer, both of whom were various flavors of awful before combining for a 14.3 passer rating in a Monday night loss to Seattle that embarrassed Philadelphians all the way back to Ben Franklin. At season's end, McMahon followed Brad Childress to Minnesota, only to be cut there, while Detmer, who had been with the Eagles even longer than McNabb, was waived bye-bye. In their place this year are Jeff Garcia and, believe it or not, A.J. Feeley. First, Garcia: In the mucho macho world of pro football, there are few things worse than calling a guy a jake, which is what Owens did to McNabb in Philadelphia. One of those few things, however, is calling him a gay, which is what Owens did to Garcia in San Francisco. Garcia hasn't done much since leaving the 49ers. He spent a dreadful 2004 not fitting in with what Cleveland was doing, then was brought to Detroit by Steve Mariucci in 2005 to destroy what was left of Joey Harrington's confidence. Mariucci was out before the end of the season and now reads cue cards on NFL Network (not very well, I might add). Garcia was gone not much later and now finds himself in Philadelphia, where he might not be much of a backup QB, but will serve to remind McNabb that he wasn't the first guy to get backstabbed by Terrell Owens. (The Cowboys come to town in Week 5, and by then Drew Bledsoe should be ready to join the support group.) As for Feeley: Eagles fans remember 2002, when McNabb was injured in the ninth game and Detmer in the 10th, leaving the season in Feeley's soft young hands. He kept the Eagles in contention and handed the keys back to McNabb for the playoffs. His Scott Mitchell-esque adequacity earned him a contract offer from the Dolphins. Failing there, he was dealt to the Chargers for the immortal Cleo Lemon. San Diego cut him in late August, and he has returned to the role he was born to play: third-string quarterback for the Eagles. Welcome home, A.J. Welcome home.

San Francisco 49ers
What's left to say about Alex Smith, really? He's a nice kid, and it would be a shame if he can't get pointed in the right direction. The 49ers have brought in Trent Dilfer to mentor Smith. If that doesn't work, electric shocks and water hoses might be their only option left. Unlike a lot of teams this year, the 49ers will carry three quarterbacks, and run a good chance of having to use them all. The No. 3 is Shaun Hill, who spent the first four years of his career with Minnesota. Out of 66 total games in those four years (64 regular seaon, two playoff), he spent 56 inactive as the third quarterback and 10 as the backup, and he saw action in exactly one game: He knelt down twice to run out the clock in the 2005 season finale. Makes Cody Pickett look like George Blanda.

Seattle Seahawks
There doesn't appear to be much doubt left that Matt Hasselbeck is the best quarterback in the NFC. That's meant to be praise. I mean, it's not Hasselbeck's fault that the majority of the other starting quarterbacks in the conference are older than dirt (B. Johnson, B. Favre, D. Bledsoe), greener than grass (A. Smith, R. Grossman), has-beens (M. Brunell, K. Warner), never-weres (J. Kitna), or now living in Miami (D. Culpepper, J. Harrington). Hasselbeck capped his breakout season last year with an up-and-down Super Bowl that managed to capture in one single play the essence of all that is Seattle Seahawky. Down 14-10 in the fourth quarter and still very much in the game, Hasselbeck was intercepted near the goal line by Ike Taylor. Ouch! Then he ran down Taylor and tackled him. Redemption! Then he was penalized for ... tackling without prior approval, maybe? Bogus! And yet: Typical! Anyway, Hasselbeck should be coming into the season good and angry, and if he isn't, I got no sympathy for him. Here's someone else I got no sympathy for: Seneca Wallace. He's a dynamic player, but dynamism does nothing for him or his team so long as the dynamo is nailed to the bench. (Dy-no-miiite!) Wallace could be cavorting on magazine covers and smiling on cereal boxes from here to Ames, Iowa, if he'd just get his ass in the slot like Antwaan Randle El did. Yet Wallace continues to play that I'm-a-quarterback-and-that's-what-I-expect-to-be game. You know, the game that made a fool out of Kordell Stewart and cost Eric Crouch a whole lot of rupees? That one. Randle El didn't demand that the Steelers play to his lifelong dreams rather than his skill set, and look what happened to him: He threw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. Matt Jones switched to wideout, and now he's the Jaguars' No. 1 receiver rather than, say, their No. 2 quarterback. Seneca, we love you. We're married to a lady with not one but two degrees from Iowa State. We're proud of you. Go catch the damn ball. The final Seattle quarterback is rookie David Greene. With Hasselbeck's bald head up there in the front of the bus, I have no idea why Seattle burned a third-rounder on this dude, swell as he may be.

St. Louis Rams
After wrestling Kurt Warner for the better (or worse) part of two years for the right to be the Rams' starting quarterback, Marc Bulger finally claimed the position for good at the beginning of the 2004 season, at the precise moment when being the Rams' starting quarterback quit being something to aspire to. Though the Rams went to the playoffs that year, it was only because someone had to. Last year, the team returned to its mid-'90s roots at 6-10, and Bulger proved he truly was Warner's heir by missing eight games because of injury. The Rams' 2005 season may have died the night they blew a 17-point lead in Indianapolis, but the last rites were administered sometime in July. Bulger is healthy again, which is fantastic, because the backup is Gus Frerotte. You knew he was going to turn up somewhere. After that, it's just Ryan Fitzpatrick. Who? Think Brooks Bollinger, except wearing an Ivy League necktie.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All right, all right. I was wrong, but so was everybody else. Chris Simms is a legitimate NFL starting quarterback, not just a pretty-boy choke artist. My bad. What with Simms firing that cannon arm of his this-a-way and that, the Manning brothers running wind sprints down Madison Avenue, and Brian Griese threatening to bring down another franchise in Chicago, it's a surprise no one's camped out on Neil Lomax's doorstep asking if his boy can come out and play. Tampa Bay's coach remains Jon Gruden, so you'd expect to find at least one creaky old fart backing up the youthful Simms, but you'd be wrong. (We're full of surprises today.) The second-stringer is Tim Rattay, who got dicked by San Francisco for Alex Smith's sake (talk about bum luck), and the third-stringer is another one of those MAC quarterbacks, Bruce Gradkowski, who looked like a stone-cold superstar in the preseason ... playing against guys who got cut the day after the last game.

Washington Redskins
After injuries made him look like a dainty, over-the-hill fool in 2004, Mark Brunell had something to prove in 2005: that at age 35 he wasn't too old to play quarterback in the NFL. He led Washington to the playoffs, so ... Mission Accomplished! Now Brunell is about to turn 36, which we all agree is too old for him to play quarterback in the NFL. I assume Joe Gibbs will give Brunell more time to fail this year than Patrick Ramsey got last year (all of 19 minutes). At some point, though, the hook will come out, and Jason Campbell, last year's first-round draft pick, will make his debut. What about Todd Collins, ostensibly the No. 2 QB on the Redskins' depth chart? Well, what about him? If I was still picking up game checks after having thrown 27 passes in eight years, I wouldn't draw attention to myself, either.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The weekly picks are back

Everybody into the office pool! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water -- just when you thought it was safe to strip naked and hit the Wendy's drive-thru -- along comes the news that Down and Distance will once again be trying to pick the NFL winners. Longtime readers will remember that last year we finished tied for sixth out of the 30 or so writers and websites participating in The Writers' Picks at (Our quite-respectable 172-84 record was just above the magical two-thirds threshold that separates the men from the boyz.)

The picks have switched hosts this year, and now appear on Breakaway Beach (last year's co-winner). The Week 1 picks are live at the site ... and guess who's already 1-for-1 this year, even with Charlie Batch starting for the Steelers? Let's hear you say "Championship!"

Check out the full slate of picks at

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Breaking down the AFC quarterbacks

It always hurts to play in Cincinnati

With the possible exception of Kimo von Oelhoffen, no one does a more thorough job of handicapping AFC quarterbacks than Down and Distance. Now that the teams have made their final cuts and the season is upon us, let's take a spin through the conference and see who's going to be thorwing balls on the field and who's going to be fingering balls on the sidelines. Watch for the NFC edition before this Sunday's games.

Baltimore Ravens
We all know Ravens coach Brian Billick is some sort of quarterback guru, having turned Stoney Case and Chris Redman into perennial Pro Bowlers and Anthony Wright into a freakin' Hall of Famer. But the guru business isn't what it once was in America, and Billick's latest project, Kyle Boller, has a chronic case of two steps forward, two steps back. So Billick is taking a page from other successful gurus in U.S. business managemet and has assigned quarterback development to an outside contractor. Just as IBM discovered it was more cost-effective to farm out laptop production to China, the Ravens have outsourced offensive production to the Tennessee Titans. There's a reason Boller has that dark cloud hanging over his pretty little head: the recent arrival of Steve McNair, who just waltzed into Baltimore and took the starting job that Boller had been butterfingering for the past three years. Not that McNair doesn't deserve a break after spending half the offseason banging on the doors of the Titans' workout facility and shouting at the guard to come unlock the door. (Turns out the Titans had their fingers crossed when they proffered McNair's last contract. Sooprize!) Among the many advantages to giving McNair the job over Boller is that McNair has spent 11 years in the NFL outside the blast radius of Billick's fierce intellect, so no matter how deep the Brain gets his claws into him, there's only so much damage he can do at this stage. And that's why coaches coach, players play and fans get the shaft. At third QB, the Ravens couldn't decide between Brian St. Pierre and Drew Olson, so they cut them both. That's what I like to see.

Buffalo Bills
An embarrassment of riches. While teams like Dallas tiptoe into the season without a proven backup QB, the Bills have three of them. J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall will compete for the No. 2 slot. The runner-up will be the third-stringer, and whoever is left over will be the starter. Losman, the poor man's Patrick Ramsey, lives on a seesaw, at best. Holcomb, the poor man's Brian Griese, is always a fan favorite until he's sent into the game. And Craig Nall, the rich man's Kliff Kingsbury, received a surprising amount of money to come to Buffalo and make things even more difficult. This is as good a place as any to mention that Bills GM Marv Levy is 81 years old.

Cincinnati Bengals
The long-suffering football fans of Cincinnati will be watching through their fingers all season long as Carson Palmer plays on his surgically repaired knee, because there's nothing behind him on the depth chart. Dangling from the end of the second string is Anthony Wright, who was cut in favor of Chad Hutchinson in Dallas and was less effective than Kyle Boller in Baltimore. The Bengals also have Doug Johnson, because ... there's apparently some law that says you have to have three quarterbacks. You may remember Johnson from such roles as Atlanta's disastrous Plan C the year Michael Vick broke his leg. Nevertheless, he's an improvement over Cincinnati's previous No. 3 QB: Craig Krenzel. Or is he? At least Krenzel "won some games" while he was stumbling around out there for the Bears.

Cleveland Browns
It's a sign that the latest incarnation of the Browns might finally be headed in the right direction that they've quit playing hide-the-salami with quarterbacks they got cheap from the day-old bread bin. Trent Dilfer was a great guy but a bad fit, Jeff Garcia had no business whatsoever wearing an orange helmet (as if anybody does), and there's nothing you can say about Kelly Holcomb that I haven't already said above. Charlie Frye may be young, but these guys aren't going anywhere for another year or so anyway, and besides, the locals absolutely love him. So Romeo Crennel should be applauded for tossing him out there and letting him figure out which way is up. If he actually has Kellen Winslow to throw to for any length of time, all the better, but no one's really counting on that. Maybe Winslow can play center! Behind Frye are Ken Dorsey, who's developed into a perfectly serviceable and reliably non-threatening backup, and Derek Anderson, who I couldn't tell you anything about, even if you were to listen.

Denver Broncos
It's too early to know which of these guys to feel sorry for. On the one hand, you've got Jake Plummer. After six years in the castrating wilderness of Arizona and two wobbly years in Denver, Plummer finally put it together last season to lead the Broncos to their best record since the Elway era, their first playoff victory since the Elway era -- over the defending champions, no less -- and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. His reward? On draft day, his team picked a quarterback in the first round. And it wasn't just a case of "Hey, wow, we couldn't believe this guy was still available." No, the Broncos traded up to get him. Thanks for all your help, Grizzly Adams! On the other hand, you've got Jay Cutler, the aforementioned first-round draft choice. Feel-good story, great player stuck on a lousy college team, shows a lot of character, blah blah blah. Pop quiz: What do Matt Mauck, Bradlee Van Pelt, Jarious Jackson, Brian Griese, Jeff Lewis, Tommy Maddox, Shawn Moore, Todd Ellis and Buddy Funck have in common? All were quarterbacks drafted by the Broncos after 1983, the year John Elway came to Denver (via Baltimore and diaper school). Griese was the only one to become the starter, and oh boy did it mess his ass up. The rest not only couldn't displace the starter, they couldn't displace Gary Kubiak as the backup. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be "heir apparent" in Denver. In the final analysis, the guy to feel bad for is Bradlee Van Pelt. Sorr-ee, Brad-lee.

Houston Texans
For someone who just got an $8 million bonus and a three-year commitment from his team even though a) they had every right to cut him loose, and b) it would have cost them next to nothing to do so, it sure sucks to be David Carr. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, Carr has spent the bulk of his career being piledriven into the carpet while his linemen shuffle their feet and avoid eye contact. He's had a lot to worry about, but at least he never had to bear the burden of comparison with the other QBs in his draft class. When you're up against Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Josh McCown and a litter of Rohan Daveys, Kurt Kittners and Seth Burfords, any glint of adequacity will shine like Ultrabrite. This year, the Texans again had the first pick in the draft (which tells you something about how far they've come since 2002). They decided against selecting a quarterback and instead picked up Carr's option through 2008, thus ensuring that he'll heretofore be held liable for not being Matt Leinart, Houston native Vince Young, Jay Cutler or maybe even Tarvaris Jackson. To add insult to the devastating injury that's looming in Carr's future, Houston also passed on Reggie Bush, only to have Domanick Davis' knee go bum. Check this exact space next September as we drool all over Texans rookie quarterback Brady Quinn. With Dave Ragone finally (ra-)gone, backing up Carr this year will be the Favorite Quarterback of Mrs. Down and Distance, Iowa State alumnus Sage Rosenfels. There is as yet no third quarterback, which could have Carr either jumping for joy or weeping softly into his pillow, depending on which way you want to go with that.

Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have been able to carry two placekickers on the roster for the past few seasons because they've only needed two quarterbacks: perennial Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, and perennial Week 17 starter and future Week 16 starter Jim Sorgi. The free-agent signing of Renaissance man Adam Vinatieri, who can kick both field goals and kickoffs, freed up another roster spot, and the Colts brought in Shaun King to audition for No. 3 quarterback. Indy's brain trust ultimately decided that King's on-the-job experience -- falling a game short of the Super Bowl with a Tony Dungy-coached team one year, followed by an embarrassing early exit from the playoffs the next season -- would be, uh, redundant. King was cut at the end of camp, and it's a Manning/Sorgi ticket again in '06. Hey, room for another kicker!

Jacksonville Jaguars
If we're within a month of the NFL season, it must be time for some clown or another to once again suggest that Byron Leftwich should be benched in favor of The Much More Mobile David Garrard. As evidence, he'll cite the two quarterbacks' records as starters in 2005: Leftwich was 7-3 in the Jaguars' first 10 regular season games and 0-1 in the playoffs; Garrard was 5-1 in the final six regular season games, after Leftwich broke his ankle. Here are the teams Leftwich beat: the eventual NFC champion Seahawks; the AFC North champion Bengals; the Super Bowl champion Steelers (thank you, Tommy Maddox); the Jets; the Texans; the Ravens; and the Titans. Here are the teams Leftwich lost to: the 14-2 Colts; the 13-3 Broncos; the Rams (well, OK); and the defending champion Patriots, in Foxboro, in the playoffs. Garrard, meanwhile, beat the Cardinals, Browns, 49ers, Texans and Titans and lost to the Colts. Put me in there, and I'll do pretty good against the Cards, Browns, 49ers, Texans and Titans. Well, not me, exactly, but the NFL equivalent of me, which is David Garrard. The third-stringer is Quinn Gray, making the Jaguars the first team with three African-American quarterbacks, which is pretty cool. Even cooler is that we've gotten to the point that it's not really a big deal.

Kansas City Chiefs
What's interesting about Trent Green is that even though it seems like he's been around absolutely forever, there's no evidence of it. He was drafted in 1993 but threw only one pass through 1997, then all of a sudden he was a starter and was throwing for like 4,000 yards a year. The guy's got so much gray, he looks like Daryle Lamonica, yet he began the season just 49th in career passing yards. What's also interesting is that with all the trouble the Chiefs have had over the past several years, Green has largely ecaped blame. I'm not saying he should be blamed, but he's the quarterback. Getting blamed is what you do. Green has a couple good years left in him, so he's got nothing to worry about. In the meantime, Kansas City is grooming his successor, Brodie Croyle, who is not Brady Quinn, though for the longest time I didn't know the difference. Sandwiched between the two on the depth chart is Damon Huard, the uglier of the Huard brothers. He's not being groomed for anything.

Miami Dolphins
People have finally come to realize that although Daunte Culpepper was horrid in the first two games of 2005, when he was still with Minnesota, he played much better from the third game on, right up until the Panthers crippled him in Week 8. Go back and look at the film, and it becomes clear what happened. Culpepper had lost his offensive coordinator, his top receiver, and his All-Pro center before the season began, but nobody told him. He was throwing those passes out there like always, but for some reason it was Travis Taylor or some other clown running around on the other end instead of Randy Moss. Once Culpepper figured this out, he got better. That's my theory anyway. So blame Mike Tice. Again. Culpepper wound up being traded to the Dolphins, less for his performance on the field than for his performance on Lake Minnetonka. In Miami, he gets a fresh start on a rebuilt knee. The reduced mobility could be a problem, or it could not, but whatever happens, his job is safe. I mean, that's Joey Harrington with the clipboard back there. (You may not have recognized him because he's begun sporting Paige Davis' haircut.) And Cleo Lemon sure as hell is no threat.

New England Patriots
After putting up big, big numbers when he had to last year, Tom Brady erased any doubt that he's the best quarterback in the National Football League. As such, it's awfully tempting to say he's not in any danger of losing his job -- but he plays for the New England Patriots, and Bill Belichick will cut anyone at any time. He'll cut rookies, he'll cut veterans, he'll cut stars, he'll cut scrubs, he'll cut his own throat just to teach you a lesson. Every year, a high-profile Patriot (e.g. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law) gets made an example of. This year it's Deion Branch, MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX and long Brady's No. 1 target. I asked Brady this last year, and I'll ask him again: A couple years back, you took less money than you could have demanded so that the team would have more cap room for other guys. When do you suppose they'll start using that cap room on other guys? Oh, I kid! Branch has a contract; he, not the team, is the one refusing to honor it. I'm sure Brady is perfectly safe. ... But the Patriots have been giving Matt Cassel more playing time than he ever dreamed of in college. Watch yourself out there, Tommy. It'd be a shame if anything were to ... happen to you.

New York Jets
Ten years from now, during a Sunday Night Football game between the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Ravens (oh, wouldn't that be poetic?), the beloved, newly retired quarterback who returned the Jets to glory in the mid-'00s will weave up to sideline reporter Raven Symone and demand a little sugar. But will it be Chad Pennington, Patrick Ramsey or Kellen Clemens? Fragile chew toy Pennington is coming off his second major arm injury in as many years and continues to test Down and Distance's pet theory that he's considered a star for no other reason than that he plays in New York. Well, near New York. Enter Ramsey, who as a Redskin endured vicious beatings on the field under Steve Spurrier and off it under Joe Gibbs. The Jets acquired him from Washington for a sixth-round pick. Just four years ago, Ramsey was a first-round pick -- and perhaps the strangest first-round quarterback selection of the past decade. I've seen teams pick bad quarterbacks in the first round (Akili Smith, Jim Druckenmiller). I've seen teams pick average quarterbacks way too high in the first round (Joey Harrington, Tim Couch). I've seen teams pick fruitcakes and psychopaths in the first round (Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf). But Patrick Ramsey is the first quarterback I've ever seen who was drafted in the first round even though he didn't have first-round talent and, most important, even though no one with the team that drafted him seemed to want him. Spurrier certainly didn't. He wanted his former Florida guys, Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, even though Wuerffel had already bombed out of the NFL and Matthews was headed in that direction. It was rumored that Dan Snyder was behind the pick, but he didn't seem terribly enthralled with Ramsey, either. When Gibbs came to town, he benched Ramsey, played a gimpy Mark Brunell as long as possible, eventually declared Ramsey the starter in 2005, and then took away the job for good when Ramsey suffered a not-season-ending injury in the second quarter of Week 1. Pennington will open the season as the starter, but Ramsey will play at some point, because these are the Jets and every quarterback gets playing time whether he deserves it or not. That leaves us with Clemens, a second-round pick out of Oregon. The Jets media were positively over the moon about this guy. One word of caution for Gang Green: Oregon.

Oakland Raiders
Aaron Brooks is Al Davis' kind of quarterback, one with a great big arm who isn't afraid to wind up and throw the ball as far as he can. If only he had any idea where it was going to come down, he might be the next Jay Schroeder. Randy Moss was so impressed with what he saw of Brooks in the preseason that he recommended the Raiders sign Jeff George, who had been out of the NFL for five years (and out of football even longer than that). George lasted all of five days in camp, so it's back to Brooks. Andrew Walter got a long look in the preseason and will probably get a longer one in the regular season once Oakland sinks far enough into the toilet. And Marques Tuiasosopo is now farther away from the starting job than at any previous point in his five meaningless years in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers
It's clear now that Ben Roethlisberger is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, because he's bitching about "respect" and vowing to "prove everyone wrong." It works like this: The Steelers win the Super Bowl on the strength of their running game, their defense and a nifty trick play. Roethlisberger has a generally ugly game (9-for-21, 123 yards, no TDs, two interceptions), but it doesn't really matter when all's said and done. After the game, he proceeds to moon in the locker room over how he should have "done more" to help his team. Coming back for 2006, he tells Sports Illustrated that after crapping on the carpet at Ford Field, he now has something to prove. The Cult of Ben swoons. So intense! So driven! Peeyoo. Get a grip. You sound like you're 12. In more ways than one. On the other hand, it's comforting to see Big Ben able to say anything after having turned his face into a maraca on Second Avenue near 10th Street. I'm not going to lecture him about the importance of wearing a helmet while overcompensating around town on a crotch-rocket. There are entire non-profit organizations dedicated to that sort of thing. I will berate him, however, for his cavalier attitude toward appendix health. People are counting on you, man. Think! With Roethlisberger on a clear-liquid diet, the Steelers open the season with Charlie Batch at quarterback. Last year Tommy Maddox was the QB all Pittsburgh lived in fear of, while Batch was the lesser of two evils. Now Maddox is gone, and Batch is the only other quarterback on the 53-man roster. Sometimes, there's no way you can win. Curiously, the Steelers kept two QBs on the taxi squad: Omar Jacobs (heh!) and Brian St. Pierre (haw!).

San Diego Chargers
The real problem with Philip Rivers isn't that he's inexperienced. It's that he doesn't look like a professional football player as much as the Republican candidate for Wyandotte County Commissioner. Rivers became the Chargers' starting quarterback after Drew Brees was cheerfully encouraged to take his bad shoulder and his winning attitude somewhere else. It was an ugly situation, but it wasn't Rivers' fault. It might actually have been Brees' fault. If he hadn't spent his first three years in the league defining "average" downward, the Chargers never would have felt compelled to draft Eli Manning, trade him for Rivers and doom us all to two years of awkward press conferences. Be that as it may, the Chargers are now Rivers' team, and the organization is demonstating that it's fully committed to ... whoops! It says here that San Diego used its third-round pick this year on Charlie Whitehurst of Clemson. "We've got full faith in you, Phil. Could you, ah, bring the new kid up to speed?"

Tennessee Titans
The Titans enter another(!) rebuilding year with a mismatched set of luggage at the quarterback position: a former star (Kerry Collins), a presumptive future star (Vince Young), and a former presumptive future star (Billy Volek). When the preseason began, it was a two-man race. Volek was the loyal backup who patiently waited his turn and even turned down the chance to start elsewhere so he could re-sign with the Titans. Young is the electrifying rookie who led Texas to the national championship before being drafted to play under Matt Leinart's old coach in Tennessee. By the end of preseason, however, the answer to the "Volek or Young?" turned out to be "Kerry Collins." So expect the veteran Collins, a good soldier but a fading talent, to start until the Titans are mathematically eliminated (Week 7), then turn things over to young Young. Volek, his patience and loyalty rewarded the way patience and loyalty are always rewarded in pro sports, will ride the bench for the rest of his life. Unless Pacman Jones shoots Collins to death. And Young. In that scenario, Volek might have a shot at beating out Jeff Blake for the job.