Once again, season is roller-coaster ride

ON THE NFL

November 09, 2003|By KEN MURRAY

One more time, the unpredictability factor has flipped the NFL head over heels. Just as intriguing as the rise to prominence of the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys is the shocking fall from grace by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders.

In the first half of the season, quarterbacks Quincy Carter and Marc Bulger gained solid foot-holds in Dallas and St. Louis, respectively, while in Oakland and Philadelphia, Rich Gannon and Donovan McNabb took giant steps back.

Good one year, struggling the next. That has become the NFL motto. Last season's 12 playoff teams have gone a combined 44-53 this year. If the playoffs started this week, only three of them -- Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles -- would make an encore appearance. Neither Super Bowl team would be playing.

Reviewing a tumultuous first nine weeks of the season, these are the highs and lows.

Best team: At 8-0, it's hard to argue against the Chiefs. But they are in the toughest conference and face the biggest challenge in the postseason.

Worst team: The Atlanta Falcons started camp as Super Bowl contenders, but quickly became pretenders when quarterback Michael Vick broke his leg.

Best coach: Under Bill Parcells, the Cowboys made the biggest jump, from 5-11 to 6-2. You've got to like what Mike Tice has done in Minnesota (6-10 to 6-2), too. And New England's Bill Belichick deserves mention.

Worst coach: We didn't need Charles Woodson to tell us. That would be Oakland's Bill Callahan, clueless since the Super Bowl. Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio is pressing him, however.

Offensive MVP: Titans quarterback Steve McNair. At 30, he has put all the pieces together.

Defensive MVP: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Simeon Rice. Still not much against the run, he is awesome chasing the quarterback.

Best offensive rookie: Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin, with 48 catches already. And the Cardinals got him in the second round.

Best defensive rookie: Tie between cornerbacks Terence Newman of Dallas and Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks, taken six picks apart.

Biggest mystery: Miami Dolphins. This team should dominate.

Biggest underachiever: McNabb. All of a sudden, he couldn't pass.

Biggest fraud: At 6-2, the Seattle Seahawks lost to the Bengals, almost lost to the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, and got drubbed by the Packers.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Get out the broom

It looks like the Atlanta Falcons will clean house after their debacle of a season. Not only is coach Dan Reeves likely to go, but vice president of football operations Ron Hill could become a casualty as well. Virtually all of Hill's moves in free agency backfired, including the signings of defensive backs Tyrone Williams, Cory Hall and Tod McBride, and wide receiver MarTay Jenkins.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week, owner Arthur Blank said he would resume his search for a general manager in the offseason. And while he has supported Reeves and the staff, he admitted he has a list of potential coaching candidates in mind. But don't expect Deion Sanders to be on the list.

Of Sanders' professed interest in Reeves' job, Blank said: "Deion's waiting for me to call him. Yeah, but he said somewhere in the [ESPN.com] article he's very respectful of Dan. I mean, how respectful can a guy be of a head coach when he publicly says, `I want his job'? Gosh, is that disrespectful."

Same tune, new target

A week ago, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress griped that he wasn't getting the ball enough. Now he's complaining that the officials are letting defensive backs rough him up.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "I'm just not getting the calls. And if I am not getting the calls, then I am just going to start pushing guys to get open. I would rather push a guy and go catch the football and let them make a judgment call instead of trying to make a clean play."

Won't the officials be interested to learn that?

Still dangling

There is no movement in the Drew Henson saga, but plenty of signals. Henson is the former Michigan quarterback who signed a lucrative baseball contract with the New York Yankees. He hasn't shown he can hit at the minor league level, though, and there is increased speculation he will give up baseball and return to football. But his career has become a poker game.

If Henson quits baseball, he'll lose $12 million in base salary from the Yankees. If the Yankees release him, he gets the money. So, for now, he's not quitting. His NFL rights are owned by the Houston Texans. Because they have David Carr, they'll be happy to peddle Henson's rights for, say, a first-round pick and a conditional pick.

Eagles fluttering

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