The San Jose SaberCats win ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans

As a self-described football junkie, I spent a good portion of my Sunday watching this year’s rendition of the ArenaBowl. It was great to see the minor league’s version of the “Super Bowl” where players get paid much less, but will still go over the middle and into a “wall” no less if needed to get a ball. I know some NFL snobs out there maybe saying “Why are we talking about an Arena Football Game?” The reasons include: NFL Camps are just starting with veterans finally arriving, the game was a huge step in the re-birth of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina (17,056 tickets purchased, was the first ArenaBowl sellout at a neutral site), and the indoor version of football offers a family oriented high octane product. For NFL fans, the AFL provides an off-season football fix and as AFL Commissioner David Baker said “People don’t stop being NFL fans when the Super Bowl is over, they’re year-round fans.”

In the game, the SaberCats (16-3) became the most successful AFL franchise this decade capturing their third Arena League championship in six years. The 55-33 victory over the Columbus Destroyers capped a 3½-month winning streak and solidified San Jose Head Coach Darren Arbet as one of the greatest coaches in AFL history. Arbet and the SaberCats are 3-0 all-time in ArenaBowls having knocked off Arizona the other two times before Sunday (52-14 in 2002 and 69-62 in 2004). Since his arrival in San Jose, Arbet has a 13-8 career playoff record.

The star and the MVP of the game was former UC-Davis quarterback Mark Grieb, who completed 24 of 29 passes for 218 yards and with four touchdowns. Conversely Columbus quarterback Matt Nagy was only 24 of 43 for 203 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Nagy and the National Conference Champion Columbus Destroyers (10-10) were trying to complete an improbable run going from the lowest playoff seed to champion after wining three consecutive road games against the 3 highest seeds to get to the final.

San Jose took the lead for good in the second quarter when Trestin George returned a kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown to break a 14-14 tie. Then, on a fourth-and-1 play, Grieb found George Williams with a shovel pass, giving the SaberCats a 27-14 halftime advantage. The San Jose defense continued their staunch ways (second in the AFL in points allowed) keeping the Destroyers out of the end zone for nearly 11 minutes to end the first half, which was a feat considering Columbus averaged 50.1 points a game this season and 63 points in the playoffs. Nagy keyed several drives hitting Cole Magner with a 3-yard touchdown pass to pull the Destroyers within 27-21 with 8:09 remaining in the third quarter and a 4-yard scoring pass from Grieb to Ben Nelson gave the SaberCats a 34-21 lead. But Damien Groce caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Nagy to pull Columbus within 34-27 as the third quarter ended. A 1-yard run by Phil Glover five minutes into the fourth quarter put San Jose up 41-27 and pretty much ending the game. To end the scoring for the SabreCats Grieb found James Roe for a second time with 5:57 left, hitting him for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 48-27.

Lloyd’s AFL Leftovers

  • The AFL may not have the panache of the NFL, but they know the “working man” is their biggest customer and the ArenaBowl was sold out with attendance at 15,147 people. Tickets to ArenaBowl XXI were priced accordingly ($16.00 dollars to as high as $175.00 dollars) for their fans, who make the league what it is. The high of $175.00 dollars is a far cry from the thousands of dollars people pay each year to be at the “corporate” Super Bowl.
  • The two previous ArenaBowls were held in Las Vegas, but liked that the game was held in an arena in an area that needed it. Before that, the team with the better record hosted the game and there were nine straight sellouts. The 2005 game drew 10,822 and the 2006 ArenaBowl had a crowd of 13,476.
  • The telecast of the ArenaBowl XXI was part of a five-year multimedia deal with ESPN, signed in December of 2006. ESPN owns 10% of the 19-team AFL, making it the league’s largest owner. At the end of the deal, ESPN can sell its share back to the AFL or to another investor. They had a 29-game agreement for 2007 including 14 Monday night telecasts on ESPN2, giving the network Monday night football programming nearly 60% of the year.
  • To give the game an NFL feel ESPN and ABC rolled out their Monday Night Football “B” team of Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. The two have been very popular on ESPN Morning radio and they have done a decent job learning and talking about the AFL this season.
  • The AFL may not have huge names on the field but they do have some star power when it comes to owners. Big time NFL and entertainment people involved in the AFL include: John Elway (Denver Crush), John Bon Jovi and Ron Jaworski (Philadelphia Soul), Joey Galloway (Columbus Destroyers), Mike Ditka (Chicago Rush), Tom Benson (New Orleans VooDoo), Tim McGraw (Nashville Kats), Deion Sanders (Austin Wranglers), Jerry Jones (Dallas Desperados), and others.
  • For the 2007 season, the AFL had an average attendance of around 12,300, and the league’s telecasts on ESPN averaged a 0.3 national rating. Those are respectable numbers compared with the 2006 attendance of established, but following off leagues NHL (16,907) and NBA (17,704). With the AFL’s success and exposure they are looking to add a 20th franchise in time for the 2008 season, with the prime contenders for a new team being Washington, D.C., and South Florida.
  • With NFL Europa shutting down there has been talk of the AFL becoming an “official” NFL minor league.   According to Pro Football Talk, an indoor football source told them that former Broncos quarterback John Elway plans to push for the Arena Football League to become the new NFL developmental league. To get there, the word is that Elway, co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush, first plans to target AFL Commissioner David Baker for removal, due to the fact that plenty of the teams are consistently losing money.
  • Though the AFL boasts many former NFL players, some current NFL players have an AFL pedigree including: BPR #70 Guest Detroit Lions WR Mike Furrey, Chicago Bears Wide receiver Rashied Davis (four years in the AFL), New Patriots “ironman” WR/DB Troy Brown, Arizona Cardinal QB Kurt Warner, and others. Warner was a record setting quarterback with the AFL’s Iowa Barnstormers, before he gained NFL notoriety for winning two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award while leading the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Warner credits the AFL for allowing him to make quick reads due to the fast pace of their game.
  • I have been told that the AFL now has a display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which I will verify this weekend as I head up to the enshrinement ceremonies.

Vikings Sign RB Adrian Peterson

 

The Minnesota Vikings signed my pick for the 2007 NFL Rookie of the Year, #7 overall draft pick running back Adrian Peterson (6’1, 220) over the weekend. Peterson’s deal is for five-years and will pay him $40.5 million contract with $17 million in guaranteed money. The signing of Peterson ended a brief 3-day holdout and the former Oklahoma Sooners running back will now be paired with current Vikings starter Chester Taylor. “It’s about time,” running back Chester Taylor recently jokingly told reports as the Vikings wrapped up their fifth training camp practice without his new backfield mate. Taylor added “We need him out here so we can groove our offense even better with him coming back. So I’m just looking forward to him taking the field.” After a franchise low in first downs in 2006, the Vikings will try and use Taylor (1,214 yards) and Peterson similarly to recent successful NFL tandem backfields (Colts – Rhodes and Addai, Patriots – Dillon and Maroney, Bears – Benson and Jones & the Steelers – Bettis and Parker). The Vikings will need to lean on the rushing tandem to help 2-year player and first year starter quarterback Tavaris Jackson, who is still a developmental project.

I know many may think that it is too early to give an award to a player, but I believe Peterson has the chance to make an immediate impact more than any other 2007 offensive draftee. He will get the opportunity to be a featured starter and has the vision, speed, and power to hit the ground running. After leaving as a junior, he maybe an injury risk (Missed seven games this season with a broken collarbone), but the Vikings have tested his collarbone and they believe he will hold up. Peterson had an amazing 1,012 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns in about 6 games in 2006. I liked how he came back in the Fiesta Bowl even though didn’t have to running for 77 yards and two touchdowns, including a 25-yarder on the first play of overtime, in Oklahoma’s 43-42 overtime loss to Boise State. For his college career, Peterson ran for 4,045 yards in three seasons, ranking behind only 1978 Heisman winner Billy Sims (4,118) and Joe Washington (4,071) on Oklahoma’s career rushing list. His 1,925 yards in 2004 were a school rushing record and the most by a freshman in NCAA history.

The signing leaves draft picks: Oakland QB Jamarcus Russell, Detroit WR Calvin Johnson, Arizona OT Levi Brown, Washington FS Laron Landry, Jets CB Darrelle Revis, Carolina LB Jon Beason, Cleveland QB Brady Quinn and Kansas City WR Dwayne Bowe unsigned as of July 30th.

Training Camp Opens and the Storylines are Plentiful

Training Camps from Wisconsin to Lehigh have either opened up or will be opening up shortly. The NFL season is upon us and so are the story lines. It is amazing that I am now busy 52 weeks a year covering the NFL. Old-timers used to tell me that the NFL was a 6 month league, where it shutdown in January and the spring and summer were quiet. Well I guess that was before sports talk radio, the internet age, draft hysteria, fantasy football, and any other any morsel related to the league that astute fans are consuming year round.

The Top 15 story lines that I will be following during training camp:

1. Michael Vick Dog Fighting Soap Opera – What started out as a minor distraction for the Falcons has now morphed into a national story that surrounds the entire NFL. Round one of the story was the indictment of Vick and three others on July 17th, which included gruesome allegations included in the indictment. This past week amidst protests by PETA and other animal rights groups, we had round two of the Vick dog fighting case as Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the star quarterback to not report to Falcons training camp. The Commissioner did the move so that he and special NFL investigative attorney Eric Holder could gather as much detail as possible regarding the case. The public also found out that Falcons owner Arthur Blank was also going to suspend him for 4 weeks for misconduct (Keyshawn rule), but the Commissioner told him to wait. The NFL is trying to ensure that they have covered all of their bases regarding the Vick case, before I believe they will issue the inevitable year long suspension that we know is coming. The NFL cannot afford to come down lightly on Vick despite him being only being charged and not convicted at the moment. The league has already set a precedent by suspending Pacman Jones for a year without a conviction and now you are talking about one of the games biggest stars. Vick, who pleaded not guilty in court on July 26th and is now awaiting a November 26th trial, would be best served to strike a deal with Blank on a leave of absence with pay, so he and his high powered attorney Billy Martin can concentrate on his court battles where he is facing six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000 dollars. If he doesn’t cooperate with Blank and the NFL, you could see Vick released ala Tank Johnson with Falcons eating $6 Million dollars in 2007 and $15 Million in 2008 on the salary cap. With all the Vick goings on, it has to make you wonder if the Falcons did the right thing trading valuable backup QB Matt Schaub to the Texans. BTW: Vick had to surrender is passport so the CFL is out of the question.

2. Larry Johnson’s Contract Situation – This is a situation that has carried on since the 2006 season ended and screams “buckle” yourself in. Unfortunately we are probably going to see a training camp holdout, because on one side of the table you have a small market franchise, who typically will not pay over the top for players and on the other side you have a 28 year old running back, who feels he deserves to get paid like NFL super back LT (21 Million Guaranteed). Johnson is a 2-time Pro Bowl player and is the physical down hill runner that Head Coach Herman Edwards loves. Edwards believes in grinding the clock and LJ is his sledgehammer. After a great season in which he set an NFL record with 416 carries and having healthy a 4.3 ypc average (1789 yards w/ 17TDs), you would think Johnson would be in the proverbial cat-bird seat. But the Chiefs really don’t seem that anxious to give into Johnson, because of his age, mileage, and he is already under contract for this year ($1.9 million broken down into $1.7 million base salary, plus a $200,000-plus for incentives achieved) with the possibility of them “franchising” him after the season. Johnson’s current deal is not “chump change”, but it is not LT money and he will not settle for less. The Chiefs believing that they need a happy Johnson have countered with an offer of guaranteed money somewhere between $11 and $14 million, which is on the level of the bonus money paid to Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, who received $13.5 million worth of guaranteed money in 2006. I believe that the Hunt family and GM Carl Peterson will be content to let Johnson wait around until he comes to his senses. Johnson stands to lose more than $111,000 per game and the Chiefs could also opt to fine him $14,000 for each day he is not at training camp and pursue a pro-rated portion of his initial signing bonus that could amount to as much as $660,000. With the team already have Michael Bennett and the recently recovered Priest Holmes on the roster, there really is no immediate need for the Chiefs to pursue Johnson like there is no tomorrow. We will have to wait and see who blink first in this million-dollar poker game.

3. Other Unhappy Veterans and Possible Holdouts – One thing is for certain in the NFL when one player gets a shiny new contract five other players at his position are saying they deserve equal or more, because they are better players. I have found most players talk tough about holding out until the prospect fines (up to $14,000 daily) for missing camp and missed game checks come into play. If a player does hold out usually they report before Week 10, because that is the cut off for receiving credit for a season in the NFL’s free agent system. Last year we saw former Patriots WR Deion Branch holdout until Sept. 11th when he was traded to the Seahawks (Missed out on 1 game check of $65,625 dollars and had to pay fines for missing training camp). One player that has been extremely vocal about his displeasure with his current contract is Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl G Alan Faneca. Faneca recently watched as lesser players like Leonard Davis (Cowboys – seven-year, $49.6 million w/ 18.75 Million guaranteed) hauled in large signing bonuses while he has been embattled with the Steelers. With the Steelers signing S Troy Polamalu to four-year extension worth $30.19 million that makes him the highest-paid player in team history , don’t for Faneca to get a new deal anytime soon. (Other holdout candidates: Jets G Pete Kendall, Giants DE Michael Strahan, Bills DT Darwin Walker, and others)

4. Injury Comebacks – The NFL is a league where having good health on your roster is paramount. For injured players whose teams went on without them last season, they know that training camp is the best place to show their coaches and teammates that they are ready to contribute again. One of the bigger player comeback stories is Cleveland Browns C LeCharles Bentley (Knee). After coming over to his home town team, Bentley who was 2006 top free agent tore his patellar tendon during 2006 training camp and had to endure four surgeries including several to battle a staph infection. Bentley recently got the go ahead from his doctors that he could play again and it ended a long and arduous path that almost ended his career. If healthy, Bentley will be asked to anchor a remade O-Line that needs to get 2007 free agent RB Jamal Lewis going. The Browns will take Bentley’s re-entry into the lineup slowly (no contact until September), but here’s hoping the story ends well for him. Other training camp injury comebacks include Detroit Lions RB Kevin Jones (Foot – Lisfranc), Dallas Cowboys LB/DE Greg Ellis (Torn Achilles), Carolina Panthers LT Travelle Wharton (Knee), Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander (Foot), Randy Moss (Ego) and others.

5. “Franchised” Players – The NFL’s version of “Decision Day” took place on July 16th as players that were ‘franchised’ needed to decide if they want to accept their 1 –year offers or not. If a player failed to sign a long-term contract extension by that date, NFL rules stipulated that the only deal a franchise-tagged player could sign was the tender offer from their own club. The contract tender is a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of April. In the past we have seen franchised players miss all non-mandatory off season training activities and report late or holdout of training camp (ex. Seattle Seahawks Offensive Tackle Walter Jones in 2004 & 2005). This year’s list of franchised players was led by all-world DE Dwight Freeney of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. The Colts and Freeney avoided a holdout by signing him to a six-year, $72 million contract that includes a NFL Record $30 million signing bonus. Freeney did well working with the franchise tag, but two other players Chicago Bears OLB Lance Briggs and New England Patriots CB Ashante Samuel (Tied for NFL lead in INTs with 10) are still trying to work with their teams while being franchised. Briggs decided that he wanted to be in camp and signed his 1 –year deal worth 7.2 Million including stipulations that the Bears could not tag him again if he reaches certain incentives (75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps). Samuel has been offered the franchised amount (1 yr, $7.79 million), but remains unsigned and wants a contract similar to 49ers F\A signee CB Nate Clements, who signed a $80 Million Dollar deal with a 20 Million plus signing bonus. He may be in for a long battle as the Patriots seem willing to wait him out. Other franchised player Lions DT Cory Redding will be in Lions training camp after signing a seven-year, $49 million deal including $16 million guaranteed.

6. Donovan McNabb’s Comeback Story – Everywhere that I go Eagles fans want to know will McNabb be healthy and ready this season. Too often I have been hearing impatient whispers that McNabb is washed up after being hurt 3 out of the last 5 years, ending two on I/R. Unfortunately for McNabb the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league, where people forget 2647 yards and 18 TD’s in 10 games in 2006 too easily. Even after 104 games, 22,080 yards passing and 152 TDs with the Eagles, his career with the franchise is on the line. He is above the Birds’ magical 30 year old mark, he has an injury history, and the Eagles drafted “quarterback in waiting” Kevin Kolb (Signed to four-year contract that included $2.62 million worth of guaranteed money). No one has a crystal ball, but I have a feeling that McNabb will answer his critics and he should have a lot of help from RB Brian Westbrook who now seems to be the focal point of the Eagles new “Ground Marty” game plan, but Big 5 needs to stay healthy for the entire season.

7. Rookie Holdouts – The annual “last rookie into camp” watch starts once again as teams report to training camp. Most rookies cannot afford to miss large amounts of time in camp, because the learning curve is very steep going from college to the pros. Slotting definitely is a big factor as no player wants to sign before a player in front of him, but contracts usually come in around 10% higher than the previous year’s similar draft spot. We have seen in past rookies like Akilli Smith never recover from lost time in training camp. Last year Eagles DT Broderick Bunkley never seemed to get out of the team’s doghouse for missing the first two weeks of training camp. With the Browns signing 3rd overall pick Joe Thomas OT from Wisconsin to 6-year deal on July 26th, maybe more draft picks will sign and be in camp on time. As of July 27th picks JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 1st Overall), Calvin Johnson (Detroit – 2), Levi Brown (Cardinals – 5), LaRon Landry (Washington – 6), Adrian Peterson (Minnesota – 7), Patrick Willis (49ers – 11), Darrell Revis (NYJ – 14), Justin Harrell (Green Bay – 16), Jarvis Moss (Denver -17), Leon Hall (Bengals – 18), Brady Quinn (Browns – 22), and Jon Beason (Panthers – 25) remain unsigned. Quinn, who’s agent is Tom Condon seems to be the most logical choice among media and fans as a possible lengthy contract holdout victim. Quinn is rumored to be asking for a contract and signing bonus similar to higher drafted quarterbacks and not what his No. 22 pick slotting usually pays (Ben Roethlisberger’s 2004 11th overall pick deal seems their starting point: six-year contract worth $22.26 million in salaries and bonuses, with an additional $17.73 million in incentives).

8. Should the Patriots Already be Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy – Throughout the entire off-season, I have had one prevailing thought, the Patriots returning from the sour taste of losing to their archrival the Colts and watching them win the Super Bowl, are loading up. In what maybe New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick’s last season (Has two years and $8 million remaining), Owner Robert Kraft and Personnel Head Scott Pioli have gathered an influx of scary talent (WR Randy Moss, WR Donte Stallworth, WR/KR Wes Welker, DB Tory James, TE Kyle Brady and others) to an already talented Patriots roster. With Tom Brady throwing to additions Moss, Welker, Stallworth, and Kelly Washington instead of underachievers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell the Patriots offense will be explosive. The only two apprehensions I have is whether the core of the Patriots defense (LB Bruschi, LB Vrabel, S Harrison, LB Seau, LB Chad Brown) are too old to last through the grind of an NFL season including the playoffs and if malcontents Moss and troubled draftee S Brandon Merriweather can fit in and behave in the locker room.

9. When will Pacman Jones Resurface? – The NFL’s poster player for continued misconduct has been suspended for the entire 2007 season. “Hang’em High” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell already denied Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones’ request to join his teammates in training camp and you can almost book it that the reduction language (10 games for good behavior) was just a misnomer and Pacman will not be seen until 2008. He has been arrested a total of six times since being drafted including recently being charged with two counts of felony coercion stemming from a Las Vegas strip club fight on NBA All-Star weekend, which left a man paralyzed. The Las Vegas case is one of three still pending on Jones, including charges in Georgia and Tennessee. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, “We’ve moved on. We’re looking forward to filling the holes. We feel like we’ve done so with the roster. Now we need to do so with production on the field.” Look for the Titans to leave Jones on their roster and try to recoup the 2007 portion of Pacman’s signing bonus (approximately $1.9 million) in signing bonus.

10. Who will the surprise team be? – Whenever I touch base with my readers, they always want to know if there’s a team in the NFL that’s going to surprise everyone like the Jets and Saints did in 2006. The Jets went from 4-12 to 10-6 making the playoffs as a Wildcard team and the Saints had the best turnaround going from 3-13 to 10-6 including winning the NFC South division. To be a surprise team you definitely would have had a .500 or lower record from the year before. A safe bet will be that the “surprise” team will come from the NFC as in the past three years 13 of the NFC’s 16 teams have made the playoffs at least once. That shows that the NFC is wide open and teams move up and down each year more than the AFC, which we know features dominant teams the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Ravens, Colts and Chargers. The first thing I like to look at when deciding who can jump from the pack of mediocrity is schedule. An easy schedule during the regular season is a key component to a turnaround season as we saw last year with the Jets, who only beat one winning team (Patriots). If that is the case then the Cardinals, who have historically been underachievers have a good chance in 2007 with an opponents wining percentage of 46%. The other factor I like to look at is how a re-building or young team did in the draft adding to their nucleus. The up and coming teams that I thought did the best in the drafter were the 8-8 Carolina Panthers (Added LB Beason, WR Jarrett, C Ryan Kalil and others) and the 7-9 San Francisco 49ers (Added OT Joe Staley, LB Patrick Willis, and others) With that said I will throw the 49ers, Cardinals, Panthers, and AFC team the Steelers (8-8 in 2006) in as my teams that will surprise in 2007.

11. Will this be the year that Brett Favre finally says goodbye to the NFL? – I know better to try and predict what the most unpredictable player in the NFL’s future will hold, but I do know that Favre has not endeared himself to Packers GM Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy by waiting until the last minute in 2006 to say he was coming to training camp. Entering 2007, Favre, who is fully recovered from ankle surgery, looks like he and the Packers have a chance to get back in the thick of things in the NFC North. The Pack had 4 game winning streak to end the 2006 season with Favre throwing a career high 613 passes with 18 TDs and 18 INTs. The key to Favre wanting to continue to play is the Packers establishing a running game and their young O-Line protecting the 38 year old quarterback (237 Consecutive Starts). With Ahmad Green leaving for the Texans, the running game will be manned by RB Vernard Morency and Rookie RB Brandon Jackson. The combination is unproven so I am sure pressure will be placed on Favre to force passes into his non-descript receiving core. My feeling is Favre will know by game 10 whether this team is as talented as he says they are and if they have a chance to contend. By that point I believe he will realize that this team is still two or three years away from contention and call it quits at the end of 2007, but who knows I could be wrong again about #4.

12. Where will Daunte Culpepper Land? – After being released by the Dolphins on July 16th , I figured that at least three teams (Falcons, Ravens, and Jaguars) would be lined up to sign this two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. In the past few days each of those teams have given their own reason for not signing Culpepper. The Jaguars long rumored to signing Culpepper have decided that Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, and other quarterbacks that they have in camp are enough. I thought the Falcons coming off the Michael Vick case would take a look at Culpepper, but they as well are content with their group led by Joey Harrington. With those teams leaving the running for Culpepper, the prospects of him getting a shot to be a starter this season are getting slimmer. The Buccaneers have had Culpepper in for a visit, but I believe that is more of John Gruden’s obsession with quarterbacks than them having a legitimate job for him. I think the best bet for Culpepper will be to sit out until the end of training camp and into the regular season to see the health of other quarterbacks around the league. You never know who is going to be injured and thus an opportunity will present itself. However It is hard for me to believe that no team is willing to sign a player, who has achieve 40 combined TD’s (running and passing) in a season twice to a veteran minimum contract. The fact that he is his own agent, that he may still not be recovered from his 2005 knee injury (ACL, PCL, MCL) and that he has a blog that routinely leaks information may also be reasons why teams are backing off.

13. Who is my breakout player? – Whenever a fantasy football player or a fan looking for the next big thing asks me “who is next”, I point to Atlanta Falcons 2-year RB Jerious Norwood. Norwood reportedly has bulked up in the off-season (5-11, 220) so he can stay on the field longer. As a rookie out of Mississippi State Norwood exceeded everyone’s expectations by tallying two 100-yard games and averaging over six yards per carry. He possesses a dazzling combination of speed and quickness and has the big-play ability where he can take it to the house early and often. He was a three-year starter at MSU where he tallied 3,760 all-purpose yards ranking him third in school history and he holds the school’s career-record rushing record with 3,222 yards on 573 carries (5.6 avg) with fifteen touchdowns. With Warrick Dunn being shelved by neck surgery and Michael Vick tied up in his mess look for new Falcons Head Coach Bobby Petrino to lean on Norwood early and often.

14. Will the Cowboys take care of Tony Romo? – After a magical 2006 season where he passed for 2903 yards with 19 TDs and went to the Pro Bowl after starting the season as an unknown from Eastern Illinois, Romo is back and looking for his payday. The nation (Jessica Simpson an /or Carrie Underwood) fell in love with the 27 year old phenom, but going into his second season as a starter some are questioning is he the real deal. Romo struggled in his last two regular season games losing on Christmas Day to the Eagles and losing to the basement dwelling Lions to end the season and let’s not even bring up the playoff loss to the Seahawks, which feature Romo bobbling a game winning field goal snap. Since last season ended, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys have hoped to hammer out a contract extension, however they have never gotten past the talking stage. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones seems ready to sign Romo, but the question is will it be at Romo’s Agent Tom Condon’s price. Condon just got Rams QB Marc Bulger a 6-year, $65 Million Dollar extension with $29 Million guaranteed. I am not sure that I would invest that kind of money in a player, who could just be a flash in the pan. With those kind of numbers out there expect Jones to let Romo play out his current contract that pays him $ 3.9 Million this year. You cannot blame him as we have seen many quarterbacks rise quickly and fall just as fast in recent NFL seasons. Plus I am sure the NFL will now want to see what Romo is made of as defensive coordinators have studied the way Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson defended and put pressure on Romo in the Eagles 23-7 shellacking last December

15. Coaches on the Hot seat – Every year certain coaches and their teams know that the head man better get off to a good start and win or it will be curtains. With Super Bowl Champion coach Bill Cowher lurking in the weeds, coaches in tenuous situations better watch their back. Any coach on a hot seat list must start with Browns 3rd year Head Coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel came from a winning background in New England, but he has yet to add any of the Patriots magic to the hapless Browns. His record stands at 10-22 and GM Phil Savage and Owner Randy Lerner have given a win or leave ultimatum. In Crennel’s defense he has had to battle injuries and ineffective play at the quarterback position. Two other coaches that have experienced some playoff wins, but are now on the hot seat for not living up to expectations are Carolina Panthers Head Coach John Fox and New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Fox needs to get his aging team back to the playoffs after failing to post a winning season in 2006 (8-8) and Coughlin must silence a combustible group, who is missing their leader with the retirement of Tiki Barber. Also keep your eye on Tennessee as Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher coming off an improbable 8-8 record in 2006 is entering the final year of his contract. Most expect Fisher to sign a new deal, but you never know if he has had his fill of the Titans after 13 seasons and possible plum opening at the end of the season. Also keep an eye on the Washington Redskins as there have been rumors of Joe Gibbs leaving after 3 disappointing seasons since unretiring in 2004.

Vick pleads not guilty: The Falcons QB is scheduled for trial on November 26th

Round 3 of the Michael Vick “Who let the dogs fight” soap opera took place yesterday. Instead of being on the practice field with his teammates, Vick was in the federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson professing his innocence to dog fighting allegations and he said through his attorney Billy Martin that he looked forward to “clearing my good name.”

The scene was right out of a John Grisham novel as the public and media turned out in full force at the courthouse steps in Richmond, Va to get a glimpse of the NFL’s fallen star. Many in the crowd were there in support of the Richmond based PETA organization. Hundreds of them booed and screamed at Vick as he entered and left U.S. District Court without speaking. The court proceedings were short and to the point with Vick pleading “not guilty” in a firm voice when asked how he plead to the charges in front of him. Vick also as expected asked for the matter to be tried in front of a jury, which has been scheduled for November 26, 2007 (4 days after the Falcons play at home versus the Colts on National TV). His three co-defendants also pleaded not guilty. Vick was released without having to post bond, but he must turn in his passport (No CFL), report to authorities if he is leaving the Virginia area, and was ordered to not sell or possess a dog. Following the arraignment, Vick left Billy Martin to make public comments for him including again professing his innocence and apologizing to his Mother Brenda Boddie and his Falcons teammates for the distraction.

The arraignment was the culmination of an extremely difficult week for Vick and the NFL. Before the court proceedings the week featured rampant protests by PETA and other animal rights groups at the NFL headquarters, causing Commissioner Roger Goodell to start round two of the Vick dog fighting case by informing the star quarterback to not report to Falcons training camp. The Commissioner did the move so that he and special NFL investigative attorney Eric Holder could gather as much detail as possible regarding the case. The public also found out that Falcons owner Arthur Blank and GM Rich McKay were also going to suspend him for 4 weeks for misconduct (Keyshawn rule), but the Commissioner told them to wait until Holder and Goodell finished their investigation. I believe the NFL is trying to ensure that they have covered all of the their bases regarding the Vick case before they issue the inevitable year long suspension that we know is coming. The NFL cannot afford to come down lightly on Vick despite him being only being charged and not convicted at the moment. Vick deserves his day in court, but we know that the NFL “shield” is strong and they want to show Vick and any other disruptive players that conduct enforcement will be swift and strong. The league has already set a precedent by suspending Pacman Jones for a year without a conviction and now they understand that the world is watching to see how they handle one of their biggest stars getting in trouble.

Now that Vick has entered his plea and had his court date set, he would be best served to strike a deal with Blank on a leave of absence with pay, so he and his high powered attorney can concentrate on his court battles where he is facing six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000 dollars. Vick has nothing to gain by playing or filing a NFLPA grievance other than having a weekly circus like atmosphere wherever the Falcons are playing. If he doesn’t cooperate with Blank and the NFL, you could see the Falcons handle the matter by releasing Vick released ala Tank Johnson. The team would be within their rights as NFL contracts are not guaranteed and they would have to eat $6 Million dollars in 2007 and $15 Million in 2008 on the salary cap, but that amount maybe well worth it to get rid of probably the NFL’s biggest legal headache ever.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

Bengals LB Thurman will miss another season – Odell Thurman’s petition for reinstatement for the 2007 season was denied Thursday by commissioner Roger Goodell. The Commish continuing his “Wyatt Earp” impersonation decided that the Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker should miss another season because of his ongoing problems. Thurman was suspended for all of last season after skipping a drug test and later being arrested for drunken driving. Thurman will be allowed to ask for reinstatement again following the season. This decision leaves the Bengals with two suspended players as they open training camp. Receiver Chris Henry also will miss the first eight games for repeatedly violating the league’s conduct policy. The Bengals have been the NFL’s problem child franchise for misconduct, with 10 players arrested over a 14-month span.

Commish says “no camp” for Pacman – “Hang’em High” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also on Thursday denied Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who has had a well documented history of misconduct, request to join his teammates in training camp despite his season long suspension for misconduct. I believe that the Commish was well within his rights, because s ince Jones’ original suspension was handed down in April, he has still been involved with the authorities. He has been arrested a total of six times since being drafted including recently being charged with two counts of felony coercion stemming from a Las Vegas strip club fight on NBA All-Star weekend, which left a man paralyzed. The Las Vegas case is one of three still pending on Jones, including charges in Georgia and Tennessee. In talking about the Commission’s decision Titans coach Jeff Fisher seemed relieved and said, “We’ve moved on. We’re looking forward to filling the holes. We feel like we’ve done so with the roster. Now we need to do so with production on the field.” Look for the Titans to leave Jones on their roster and try to recoup the 2007 portion of Pacman’s signing bonus (approximately $1.9 million) in signing bonus. Jones and his Agent Mike Huyghue are still holding out hope that the commissioner will shorten his suspension and reinstate him after 10 games, but I believe that is highly unlikely given the litany of charges Jones is facing.

The All Inclusive Philadelphia Eagles 2007 Training Camp Preview

With rookies and selected veterans reporting to Eagles Training Camp at Lehigh University on July 27th, you can almost hear the crack of the pads and Eagles fans expectations souring.  To get Eagles fans through the next few days and hours leading up to camp I have put to together my All Inclusive Eagles 2007 Training Camp Guide.

Where : Lehigh University – Bethlehem, Pa.

Reporting Dates : July 27th for Rookies and July 30th for Veterans

Last Day: Aug. 11th for fans with camp officially breaking on Aug. 12th as the team holds a mock game/walk-through prior to its first preseason game Aug. 13 in Baltimore.

2006 Season OverviewGoing into 2007 training camp, the Eagles have re-established themselves as legitimate contenders once again. Their philosophy survived a roll coaster 2006 season, where they were 4-1 in their first five games (Aired the ball out), 1-4 in the middle (Heartbreakers to Tampa Bay and New Orleans and bad home loses to Jacksonville and Tennessee), and an improbable 5-1 to end the season. They showed character when many thought their season had been thrown away with the season ending knee injury to star quarterback Donovan McNabb. The team regrouped and showed their mettle winning the NFC East Championship again led by backup phenom Jeff Garcia. The moxy of Garcia, a change in offensive philosophy going to solid running game (ran over 60% down the stretch), and key turnovers especially ones caused by Brian Dawkins led the team on 6 straight improbable end of season wins including 3 divisional road victories and taking care of business in the playoffs opening round against the Giants. With the gut wrenching end of season “couldn’t stop the run / why did we punt” divisional playoff loss to the upstart Saints, it was hard to see the good of the season for some. But there were some great things that I liked: Westbrook running for over 1,200 yards, the O-Line staying healthy and dominating, Brian Dawkins returning to Pro Bowl form, and Andy Reid embracing the running game to name a few. The team does have some areas that need improvement as well Run Defense and Kick Returns are a couple. Overall did the season quench my undying thirst as a Philly fan for our elusive championship in a word “No”, but the team showed that in today’s NFL any team can get hot and make some noise.

Now that Tom Heckert and Andy Reid have a compiled a group that they believe can compete in the NFC East and NFC overall, it is up to the coaching staff to mold and transform the group of holdovers and new guys into a team. When the best teams in conference are supposed be the inconsistent Bears, the aging Seahawks and upstart Saints, I believe with the right luck with injuries and breaks the Eagles could battle the teams mentioned for the NFC crown.

Player Movement

IN

WR Kevin Curtis – Signed as a UFA from the Rams; $30 Million for 6 yrs, $2.5M Signing Bonus and $5M Roster Bonus in ’07; $1.5M Roster Bonus in ’08. In four seasons with the Rams, appeared in 51 games (11 starts), and posted 136 receptions. for 1,714 yds. and 12 TDs

QB Kelly Holcomb (trade Bills) – Backup Insurance QB, who had best year in 2003, appearing in 10 games (8 starts) for the Browns and set career highs in atts. (300), comps. (193), yds. (1,797) and TDs (10)

DT Montae Reagor – Signed a Free Agent after Colts declined to re-sign him. $8.3Million/3 yrs, $2M guaranteed. Undersized DT (6’3, 285) in the mold of most Tampa 2 D-lineman. A quick penetrating guy, who has health issues arising from a severe car accident in 2006. Recorded a career high in sacks (5.5) in 2005 LB

Takeo Spikes (trade Bills) – Former 2-time Pro Bowl LB that can play all 3 positions. Still rounding into shape after missing most of 2005 with an Achilles Tendon injury. Registered 76 tackles in 12 games in 2006

DT Ian Scott – Run stuffing DT signed (1-year deal) as a Free Agent from the Bears.

OUT

LB Shawn Barber: UFA Texans; $5.5M/3 yrs, $2M guaranteed, 49 Tkls, 0 Sacks and Int’s in ‘06.

QB Jeff Garcia: UFA Buccaneers; $7M/2 yrs, SB unknown, 6-2 as a starter including playoffs.

CB Rod Hood: UFA Cardinals; $15M/5 yrs, $2.5M guaranteed, 21 Tackles and 0 INT’s in 2006

S Michael Lewis: UFA 49ers; $30M/6 yrs, $9.8M guar., 2 INT’s, 57 Tkls in ’06 (Bad in Coverage)

WR Donte’ Stallworth: UFA Patriots; $33M/6 yrs, $1M SB, 38 catches, 725 yds, 19.1 ypc, 5TD’s

DT Darwin Walker (traded Bills) – 6 Sacks, 36 Tackles (Not good against the run)

LBs Coach Steve Spagnuolo Named defensive coordinator of the New York Giants

WR Bethel Johnson – Originally was signed as a UFA from the Vikings, but injured his ankle and was released after OTA’s. Recently signed with the Texans. Has not done much since he led the AFC in kickoff return avg. (28.2) and returned 5 kicks for 50-yds.-or-more as a rookie in 2003

DT Sam Rayburn – Signed with 49ers. Cut after another disappointing season (12 TKLS, 0 Sacks). Pleasant surprise in 2004 with 6 sacks, but after receiving an extension he produced 2 sacks in the last two years.

TE/LS Mike Bartrum – Invaluable veteran long snapper retired in the off-season because of a neck injury.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

RB Correll Buckhalter: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown, 342 yards rushing w/ 4.2 ypr and 2 TD’s.

CB William James: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown, 7 Tackles and 0 INT’s

S Quintin Mikell: Potential UFA; 4 yrs, terms unknown, 41 Tackles, 0 INT’s

DE Juqua Thomas: UFA; $12.5M/5 yrs, SB unknown, 6 Sacks, 25 Tackles

Draft Picks

2nd Rd, QB Kevin Kolb, University of Houston – Young athletic gunslinger out of a spread formation offense, who will be looked upon to be the “quarterback of the future”. Will need to learn in camp from McNabb and quarterbacks coach Shurmur how to run a pro style offense, but barring injuries don’t expect to see him for 2 to 3 years.

2nd Rd, DE Victor Abiamiri, Notre Dame – Abiamiri is a solid two way DE, who is now the Eagles biggest DE (6’4, 267) and should help in run support. He was a solid 3 year player at Notre Dame and he knows how to stay in his rush lanes and dissect plays. Will learn in camp from Kearse and Howard while pushing McDougle. Probably will contribute in preseason, but barring injuries he will be the 4th DE in the rotation.

3rd Rd, RB Tony Hunt, Penn State – Hunt may finally be the “big” back that the Eagles have been looking for the past 3 years since Deuce Staley left. He is the 3rd leading runner in PSU history and he is a willing team player. I think he can make an impact if he learning blocking assignments and how to read his lines blocking scheme. Should push former pick Ryan Moats for playing time in camp.

3rd Rd, LB Stewart Bradley, University of Nebraska – This tall (6’4) linebacker will be counted on to backup starter Chris Gocong at the strongside linebacker position. Should help out on special teams while learning how to cover TE’s.

5th Rd, S CJ Gaddis, University of Clemson – Gaddis is a very athletic player, who is still learning how to a defensive back. He is strong (gym guy) and fast. He should learn under fellow Clemson Tiger Brian Dawkins and contribute on special teams.

5th Rd, TE Brent Celek, University of Cincinnati – Celek is an H-Back type of TE (6’4, 255), who has some athleticism. He will need to work on his blocking in camp to challenge Vickers for the final TE spot on the team. Will also need to contribute on special teams to help his cause.

6th Rd, DB Rashad Barksdale, University of Albany (NY) – Barksdale is still learning how to be a “football player” after being a baseball player for most of his college career and only playing football for a couple years. The Eagles will try him first as a big CB (6’0), but I think he is going to have a tough time making the team.

7th Rd, RB Nate Ilaoa, University of Hawaii – Ilaoa is a clone of former Steelers RB Chris Fu Matafula, a bowling ball on legs. He is a squat big back, who the Eagles will try at FB first. He could be a special teams find, but he first will need to demonstrate that he can block and catch as a FB after being a featured running back in college.

Questions that must be answered in 2007 training camp and in season

  • Is Donovan McNabb healthy and what will happen if he is injured for the 4th time in 6 years and will they regret not bringing back Jeff Garcia?
  • Will Andy Reid let Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg continue to run the football?
  • Will the LB’s improve upon 3 sacks and 2.INTs now that they have added OLB Spikes, jettisoned OLB Dhani Jones, promoted OLB Chris Gocong and made other moves?
  • Are core players FS Brian Dawkins, LT William Thomas, DE Jevon Kearse, MLB Jeremiah Trotter too old?
  • After letting WR Donte Stallworth leave, can 3rd year WR Reggie Brown take the next step up becoming the Eagles go-to guy?
  • With the changes on the D-Line can they stop the run (26th Ranked)?
  • Can 2nd year players DT Bunkely, OLB Gocong, WR/KR Bloom, and OT Justice make an impact, especially first round pick Bunkley (9 TKLS)?
  • Who will long snap and hold for David Akers this season?
  • Can the Eagles cut down on their 96 penalties for 807 yards in 2006 (18th ranked)
  • Will potential free agents and quality players LT Thomas and TE LJ Smith receive contract extensions or will leave after the season like past players (ex. Burgess)
  • Will any of the rookie players make an impact in 2007 or will they be “redshirted”?
  • Will RB Brian Westbrook be healthy again and can he handle 300 touches again?
  • Can the Eagles improve on their sack total (40) from last year and will any player reach double-digits?
  • Can Sean Considine replace Michael Lewis stay healthy enough to be an every down SS (In the Box)?
  • Is there really a battle for the starting jobs at MLB (Trotter and Omar Gaither) and the second CB (Sheldon Brown and William James)?

Philadelphia Eagles – 2007 Schedule

Preseason

Aug. 13 at Baltimore (ETN)

Aug. 17 Carolina (ETN)

Aug. 26 at Pittsburgh 8:00 p.m. (NBC)

Aug. 30 N.Y. Jets (ETN)

Regular Schedule

Sunday Sep 9 @Green Bay 1:00pm (FOX)

Monday Sep 17 Washington 8:30pm (ESPN)

Sunday Sep 23 Detroit 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Sep 30 @N.Y. Giants 8:15pm (NBC)

Sunday Oct 7 Week 5 BYE

Sunday Oct 14 @N.Y. Jets 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Oct 21 Chicago 4:15pm (FOX)

Sunday Oct 28 @Minnesota 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Nov 4 Dallas 8:15pm (NBC)

Sunday Nov 11 @Washington 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Nov 18 Miami 1:00pm (CBS)

Sunday Nov 25 @New England 8:15pm (FOX)

Sunday Dec 2 Seattle 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Dec 9 N.Y. Giants 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Dec 16 @Dallas 4:15pm (FOX)

Sunday Dec 23 @New Orleans 1:00pm (FOX)

Sunday Dec 30 Buffalo 1:00pm (CBS)

Offensive Roster OverviewQB’s – Donovan McNabb was on his way to another Pro Bowl season in 2006 when a “fluke” knee injury happened near the Tennessee sideline in week 10. His numbers at the time (2647 yards, w/18 TD’s) showed that he was back from the sport hernia injury in ’05. The question is “Can McNabb continue to play at a high level or are injuries a factor?” At thirty, this question will be asked more and I say he has plenty left in the tank. If healthy, he easily can lead the Eagles offense to great heights and the ACL injury is not the career “death” sentence it used to be. McNabb has attacked his rehab and I fully expect him to be ready for the start of the pre-season. I recently got to spend time with him at his camp and he was well rested and talked very positively about getting off to a good start in ’07. Last year’s season saving play of Jeff Garcia showed that you always need a good bullpen quarterback. AJ Feely I believe will be able to fill Garcia’s role and the risk of paying a 37-year-old player was too great, no matter how great a starter he was down the stretch. Feely looked good against the Falcon’s JV in the last game, but you have to wonder is he the same player he was in Miami and San Diego (ineffective as a starter). 2nd Rd pick Kevin Kolb will be counted on to learn the offense in camp and help McNabb rest by taking extra reps, but remember he is not expected to be a player for a few years. Veteran Kelly Holcomb, who was considered a throw-in from the Spikes deal will be there to provide veteran leadership, but I don’t think the front office views him as much more than a spare part.

RB’s – With Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg going with a more ball control running offense at the end of 2006, the signs for a strong running game are there. The only caveat being, was this change an aberration or a paradigm shift. The ball control offense was able to close games out and setup timely efficient throws for Garcia. With McNabb returning will they stick with this scheme, only time will tell. Last season Brian Westbrook showed he could make it through a season carrying the team. He ran for over 1,200 yards rushing and had an impressive over 300 touches (runs and catches). With his age and the NFL’s new trend of tandems in the backfield as shown by the Colts, Saints, and Bears, the Eagles need to find a partner for Westbrook. Partner choices include the aforementioned Hunt, Ryan Moats (3rd Round – 2005) who has been a disappointment and Correl Buckhalter who is a good story coming back from his knee troubles to have a 4.2 ypc last year. Buckhalter however is question mark, because he is approaching thirty and his knee injury history. The FB starter in 2006 was Thomas Tapeh. He came back from a dislocated hip injury, but he is not a tough blocker or a reliable pass catcher (Saints playoff game). The Eagles recently cut Zach Tuiasosopo from the roster, so look for draftee Nate Ilaoa to get a fair shot. NFL Europa player Jason Davis and Jeremy Cain (Long Snapper) also add depth at the FB position.

WR’s – With the jettisoning of Owens many thought this unit would fall apart in 2006, but we saw how important running the ball is in the NFL. The Eagles started the season going down field for big passing plays, but they only had a 5-5 record. After committing to the run they went 6-2 including the playoffs. The departed Donte Stallworth was explosive (19 ypc) and provided down the field ability, but he only had 38 catches and was too big of an injury risk to bring back at a big ticket price. The signing of Kevin Curtis from the Rams will help. A quick rather than fast guy he will help by catching around 60 passes out of the slot. I like his leadership and I believe third downs are where he will make a difference. Don’t expect him to make a big impact on the outside, because he is smallish and has trouble with press coverage. The key player is Reggie Brown, who is entering into his pivotal 3rd season in the NFL. He had 46 catches for 800 plus yards, but now is the time for him to develop into McNabb’s main target. Hank Baskett (22 catches for 464 yards, 21.1 ypc, w/ 2 TD’s) was a great training camp story last year. He came over to the Eagles as an undrafted free agent via a trade with the Vikings for the underachieving McMullen. Baskett is not a 4.4 or less speedster, but I believe he will challenge for the 3rd receiver spot. Jason Avant now needs to show that he was worth a 4th round pick. At Michigan he was a “go to receiver”, but so far he has reminded me of Wolverine NFL flameouts David Terrell and Marquis Walker. Long time reserve and Super Bowl touchdown scorer Greg Lewis has good speed, but he will have an uphill battle making the team. With the cutting of Bethel Johnson, Jeremy Bloom will be asked to provide the explosiveness need at the KR position. He came into the 2006 training camp season not ready to play football after being away from the game for 3 years. He subsequently injured his hamstring and never recovered. He spent the year on injured reserve working out away from the team and he will need a strong camp to make the team as the 5th WR and return man. Hopefully he will be able to contribute as a KR more than Mahe, Moats, and Hood, who averaged less than 20 yards a kickoff. Remember the impact of Devin Hester in 2006, so Bloom succeeding is a must. The Eagles are high on former free agent Bill Sampy, because he is a guy who knows how to get open and has good hands. Sampy should challenge Lewis and Bloom for the 5th spot. Mike Gasperson is a special teams guy with NFL Europa experience, who is trying to learn how to become an NFL WR, but he will have an uphill battle in camp to advance from the practice squad and make the team. The other WR’s Jermaine Jamison, Zac Collie, and JJ Outlaw are also on the training camp roster.

TE – This group needs to get more consistent in 2007. The TE position is supposed to be a stretch the middle of the field position in the West Coast offense. The Eagles under Reid have not been receiving the big plays from the TE position, while Gates, Crumpler, Heap, Gonzalez and others are proven threats for their teams. Starter LJ Smith again started quickly, but fizzled out at the end of the season. He may have suffered the most from the loss of McNabb, but he finished with good numbers (50 catches for 611 yards and 5 touchdowns). I liked how he cut down on his drops and was a much better blocker. Smith, who was recently operated on for a sports hernia, will have to continue his successful ways, as 2007 is a contract year for him. As a 5-year veteran, he should be one of the cornerstones now on the team. The addition of Matt Schoebel in the off-season from Cincinnati was supposed to be more impactful. Schoebel was solid with 14 catches for 214 yards with 2 TD’s, but he needs to help Smith more in TE sets. The long distinguished career of TE/Long Snapper Mike Bartrum is over. He will be missed, because he was so good at long snapping you didn’t notice. Backup Lee Vickers, UDFA Kyle Hunt, and 2007 5th rd draftee Brent Celek will compete for the 3rd and 4th (if they keep that many) TE spots.

OL – Coming off an injury riddled 2005 season, this group was cohesive, nasty, and stable for the first time in a while. All the members were healthy and played in every game. Former 1st Rd Pick Shawn Andrews led the group. Andrews lost 40 pounds on his way to a dominating Pro Bowl performance at RG. Andrews became a great partner to RT John Runyan and Center Jamal Jackson as the right side led the way to 1984 yards rushing (11th in NFL). RT Jon Runyan will attempt to maintain his consistent level and continue his amazing consecutive game streak to 160 games. Center Jamal Jackson shut down teams bringing pressure up the middle and on running plays, he was a dominant blocker. Jackson is a tough large player that loves to run block and get at LB’s. He is an effort player that plays to the whistle. The LG spot maybe the only position that could be up for grabs in training camp. Todd Herremans the starter last season is a former small college Tackle, who needs to work on his footwork. I like his effort, but he plays “high” sometimes. Herremans will be in a battle with Scott Young and 2006 draftee Max Jean-Giles entering camp. LT William Thomas turned back the clock in 2006 after looking like his Eagles career was coming to an end. The team brought in 2006 2nd Round pick Winston Justice as an insurance policy, but Thomas got his back strong and played well. He is on the last year of his contract and has been with the Eagles since the Ray Rhodes era. Barring injury, look for Thomas to play out his last contract and move on letting Justice take over in 2007. O-Line backups include the aforementioned Jean-Giles and Justice. In camp I will want to see that Jean-Giles has controlled his past weight problems and Justice will need to show that he is the number #1 backup at OT and OG, because the Eagles need a “Swing Player” on the line capable of filling in. Scott Young is very strong, but he is not a finished product. Unfortunately for him everyone saw his largest error as he was called on a false start in the New Orleans playoff game on a converted 4th and 10 play. Young, Nick Cole (Center and short yardage blocker), OT Jonathan Palmer, G Stefan Rodgers, G Jacob Hobbs, G Chris White, C Jasper Harvey, and Pat McCoy (Developmental Tackle) will all be battling to make the squad in camp. Competition will be the key in training camp for this unit to maintain their foundation from 2006, protecting McNabb, and continuing to run the ball with authority.

Defensive Roster OverviewDE – Though the Eagles were respectable producing 40 sacks, they need more from their front 4 especially the DE’s. The DE’s applied some pressure, but they did not get the necessary pressure to help the defensive secondary or play stout against the run. Going into training camp, questions abound with this group. Any talk of the defensive ends starts with Jevon Kearse. Kearse now in his thirties is coming off a major knee injury. Though most people are saying there was minor structural damage, Kearse seemed to be in agony after taking the hit on the joint and was placed on injured reserve. He has returned from rehab looking svelte, maybe too thin at 240 pounds. 2005 Draftee Trent Cole hopes to continue his explosive pass rushing habits after 8 sacks. 2004 1st Rd pick Jerome McDougle will get one last chance to show that he belongs in the NFL, but he is looking like a potential camp cut. Darren Howard in training camp will need to show more than he did in 2006. At times in 2006, he seemed disinterested and was beaten on running plays badly, producing only 35 tackles and 5 sacks. The Eagles drafted the aforementioned Victor Abiamiri in the second round to guard against another let down by Howard. Jacqua Thomas will need to continue his solid play in training camp and push Howard and Kearse after he was re-signed as priority free agent (6 sacks in a limited role). Also look for small college rush end and 2006 draftee SLB Chris Gocong to contribute on passing downs. Marques Murrell is also on the roster and will try to stick in training camp.

DT – With the Eagles giving up an average of 136 rushing yards per game and the playoff game loss against the Saints truly showed a need for this group to make progress (208 yards rushing and had a 10 minute edge in time of possession). In training camp the DT’s will be my most watched group. 2005 1st Rd draft pick Mike Patterson was signed to a huge extension during the 2006 season at a time when many believe he didn’t deserve it. Patterson is a quick but small player, who has worn down in the second half of his two seasons. He has not produced to a 1st round level and needs a partner to help in his development. The biggest bulls-eye of the fans and media in training camp will be on 2006 1st Round draft pick Broderick Bunkley. Bunkely was supposed to be an impact player as a rookie, but he fell into the team’s doghouse after a holdout and only produced 9 TKL’s. In training camp he will need to exhibit his often discussed strength and show that his poor practice/study habits are behind him. The other potential starter at DT next to Patterson is former Bear Ian Scott. Scott is a big physical DT (6’3, 310) and playing next to Tommie Harris routinely clogged up the middle allowing Harris and MLB Brian Urlacher to make plays. An odd story in training camp will be whether Darwin Walker returns after being traded to Buffalo in the Spikes deal. Walker has yet to report to the Bills and probably will be returned to the Eagles for a 6th Rd pick, but I am hearing the Eagles don’t want him back. Walker had a “play for the sack” mentality, which produced 6 sacks, but he routinely ran himself out of plays and left large gaps up the middle. With the cutting of Sam Rayburn, look for a spirited training competition between 2006 6th Round Draftee Lajuan Ramsey and free agent Montae Reagor. Reagor will need to show that he is healthy (car accident) and still has the fire to play after missing most of the Colts’ Super Bowl season. Hopefully he can return to his 2005 form where he recorded a career high in 5.5 sacks. Big (329 pounds) NFL Europa veteran Mauricio Lopez and UDFA Jeremy Clark will also be in camp learning and competing for a spot.

LB – This is the #1 group that needs to show the fans and media something in training camp. The entire linebacking unit only had 3 ½ sacks and 2 Interceptions. The NFL is now built on hybrid players and schemes at the LB area. 4-3 teams often incorporate 3-4 coverage and pass rushing based on the talent at LB. The Eagles biggest problem is in coverage where they are constantly beat on play action and screens. The unit is in flux with former LBs Coach Steve Spagnuolo being named defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and new LB coach Sean McDermott taking over. McDermott will need to utilize Takeo Spikes and bring aspects of the 3-4 into Jim Johnson’s defense. In OTA’s, Spikes has gotten off to a good start. Spikes is a versatile player, who will be the nickel and dime package linebacker. He can play all 3 linebacking positions and should bring much need pedigree (2-time Pro Bowl) and swagger to this group. For the Eagles to take the next step into contention look for WLB Spikes to return from an Achilles Tendon injury that he suffered in 2005. He made it partially of the way back in 2006 posting 76 tackles in 12 games, but he needs to avoid the nagging injuries that slowed him. Another subplot from training camp will be if MLB Jeremiah Trotter still has the legs to play at a high level and if he can hold off up and coming LB Omar Gaither. At thirty, Trotter is no longer the sideline-to-sideline plugger of the past, but he is still a big physical run stuffer (112 tackles). The Eagles must make sure that he does not get worn down badly as he did at the end of 2006 (Reason for Spikes in nickel). Former 2006 3rd Round pick Chris Gocong is another player that will be watched closely in camp. He not only is returning from a “neck stinger” that put him on I\R for the year, but he is also making the difficult jump from small college DE to pro SLB. He has shown good progress in OTA’s and the Eagles may want to take advantage of Gocong’s quickness, by having him rush the passer (double digit sack numbers in college). A player on the bubble is 2005 second round pick LB Matt McCoy. McCoy is an “Effort” player, but he has not displayed the consistently as a weakside linebacker and is best on special teams and spot duty. The aforementioned Gaither was the surprise player of the Eagles LB’s. Gaither has good size at 6’1, 240 lbs and good speed and was considered a long shot to make the team. He showed he has the versatility to play all 3 linebacker positions and he maybe an eventual replacement to Trotter. After he contributed 62 tackles and 1 sack in limited duty and he was on the field more than McCoy in the playoffs. McCoy and the rest of the reserve LB’s needed to pick it up on special teams as well. The rest of the reserves will need to have a strong camp to make the team including Dedrick Roper (Backup SLB, who the Birds are high on as a backup. He will have to earn his way on special teams.), Tank Daniels (Small School UDFA), Akeem Jordan (UDFA), and Craig Kobel (NFLE).

CB’s – The defensive secondary, especially the corners again established itself as the backbone of the Eagles defense in 2006. Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown played in every game and helped to allow the safeties to come forward with confidence. The unit only allowed a little over 3,000 yards passing (9th Ranked in NFL) and had an NFL 2nd best 5 yards per pass play. With a renewed pass rush the corners and safeties should be able to play a more attacking style, which will lead to turnovers. Lito Sheppard returned to his “big play” Pro Bowl form in 2006 picking off 6 passes and returning 2 for touchdowns. His interception and return from the goal line versus Dallas was a pivotal play in the season. Sheppard I believe is also becoming more physical with larger WR’s and teams tend to throw away from him. Sheldon Brown is one of the more physical corners in football, just ask Reggie Bush who was the recipient of his huge playoff game hit. I like his aggressive nature, but he needs to watch his penalties. He is one of the best tacklers in the NFL from cornerback and can blitz (52 tackles). He still needs to concentrate on not dropping easy interceptions and timing his jumps versus larger WR’s like Plaxico Burress. Roderick Hood signed with the Cardinals and now has a chance to start opposite Antrelle Rolle. The Eagles nickel and dime packages will be tested in training camp with him gone. Veteran Will James is expected to compete with Sheldon Brown. After coming to the Eagles as a player with his iffy back and inactivity (out the game in 2005), he used his size (6’1, 200) to play almost as well as he had in his first two seasons for the Giants. With Matt Ware being cut in season and Dexter Wynne not being re-signed there are some depth issues that need to be addressed in camp. Returning players Joselio Hanson and Dustin Fox will be part of a contingent of younger players that will try to fill out the last spots on the depth chart. Hanson played his way onto the roster in training camp, but he struggled during the regular season. Fox is a former draft pick of the Vikings and excels as a tough physical player. He played well for Ohio State as a zone corner and should be a terror on special teams. 6th round pick Rashan Barksdale and undrafted free agent Nick Graham will also be in training camp trying to supplant Fox or Hanson.

Safeties – Last year served as a tale of two safeties as FS Brian Dawkins again showed why he is one of the best in the game, while the SS position was in flux as both Michael Lewis (coverage) and Sean Considine (tackling) struggled. Dawkins avoided the nagging injuries that plagued him in 2005 and led the team’s 2nd half resurrection along with Jeff Garcia (Remember the Giants game – 1 INT, 2 Fumbles Caused, 8 Tkls). Though not the same “all out” player of 5 years ago, Dawkins is the emotion leader of the team and he has learned to be smarter in his reads to compensate for loss of a step. The Eagles will lean on him heavily in training camp to teach the younger players. Departed SS Lewis was a sure tackler, but he had a couple of crucial coverage lapses including letting Joe Horn beat him deep that left him out of favor with the team. His contract situation (final year) may have caused some of his problems with the team and took the 49ers money and ran. Considine is expected to permanently replace Lewis and I have been told that he has packed on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, though when I saw him I wasn’t too sure. For the Eagles sake, I hope Considine has gotten bigger, because teams understanding that he is an undersized SS run at him constantly. I liked the re-signing of dual position backup Quintin Mikell, because he is a main stay on special teams and is good in coverage. In camp look for 5th Rd draft pick S CJ Gaddis to make an immediate impact. Much like other late round find DE Trent Cole, look for Gaddis to make an impact as a rookie. He is a tremendously gifted athlete, who has just started to scratch his ability. He is capable of helping as a safety and as a corner and he should make a name on special teams. Erick Harris (NFLE), Marcus Paschal, and Chris Smith will be learning and battling for spots on special teams. You may also see CB’s Dustin Fox or Rashad Barksdale get a look as a FS backup.

Special Teams Overview

This group will be led for the first time in awhile by a new coach as John Harbaugh has switched to secondary coach. New coach Rory Segrest will now be tasked with returning the unit back to it’s 2004 form. The Eagles in my opinion took a step back in kick returns and kick coverage (Allowed 1 punt return for a touchdown) in 2006. Segrest will need to build up his Special Teams group with Quintin Mikell and Sean Considine as his building blocks. Look for CB Dustin Fox, WR Mike Gasperson, RB Nate Ilaola, DB CJ Gaddis, and LB Sheldon Bradley to make an impact on kickoffs and punts. Hopefully in camp they will be able to find two or three solid special teams players from the drafted rookies and street free agents that want to be on the team.

Kicker – Kicker David Akers goes into training camp entering his 9th season and is coming off of a solid ’06 season where he connected on 18 field goals in 23 attempts. Hopefully with a full year of health under his belt, Akers will attempt a kick over 50 yards this year. He has the leg strength and a trend is starting in the NFL where guys are making longer kicks. I will be extremely interested to see who will be Akers holder. P Dirk Johnson, P Sav Rocca, and backup QB AJ Feely will get the first look in camp. Developmental kicker EJ Cochrane will also be in training camp to learn and help Akers out.

Punter – The punting position is clearly up for grabs the Eagles have not been happy with the consistency of veteran Dirk Johnson. He had a 34.9 net and had too many touchbacks (11). The Eagles were also not happy with his hang time and they have brought in Australian Rules player Saverio Rocca, who it hoping to become the next Darren Bennett. Rocca has been a little erratic in OTA’s hitting some good punts and some shanks. It should be a good battle and the team will hopefully find a guy who can consistently drop the ball inside the twenty.

Long Snapper – For the past 7 years this position was never a question, because Pro Bowl level player Mike Bartrum manned the position. Bartrum consistently got the job done, but a neck injury forced him into retirement. The Eagles need to find a replacement early in training camp with LS only Jon Dorenbos and FB Jeremy Cain the current leaders and DE Darren Howard serving as their backup.

Returns – The return game is in a state of flux as the team decided that an average of 20.8 on kickoffs and 9.4 on punt returns with 20 fair catches and Reno Mahe as their main KR was not enough. Mahe would secure the ball, but too often teams knew he was unexplosive and most kickoffs resulted in 20 yard or less and fair catches were the order of business on punts. The effect of Devin Hester on the NFL (6 returns for TD’s) is immense. We all know the league is a copycat league, so now every team is looking for someone to make big plays on returns. The team is hoping that Jeremy Bloom (I/R in 2006) will provide the explosiveness needed on returns. Bloom who is returning from a torn hamstring needs to be the guy. Though he was away from the game for 3 years, he truly has a knack for returning the ball. Hopefully he has built his body up (slight frame) and is healthy enough to be the number one guy. Remember Bloom was a former All Big 12 returner before leaving to ski in the Olympics.

2006 Record with Breakdown10-6 Overall Record, NFC East Champions

5-3 record on the road

5-3 record at home

1-3 vs. the AFC

9-3 vs. the NFC

5-1 in Division

Key Stats and Rankings

Offense

398 Points Scored, (Ranked 6th in the NFL)

42.1 % – 3rd Downs Converted – (8th Ranked)

28:38 in Time of Possession – (25th Ranked)

24 Giveaways, 9 INT’s, 15 Fumbles – (24th Ranked)

28 Sacks Allowed

Defense328 Points Allowed, (Ranked 15th in the NFL)

29 Takeaways, 19 INT’s, 10 Fumbles – (19th Ranked)

2182 Rushing Yards, 136 per game – (26th Ranked)

40 Sacks

Overall96 Penalties for 807 yards (18th Ranked)

+5 in Turnover Ratio – (9th ranked)

Offensive Stats including RankingsPASSING                              RUSHING

CMP ATT YD YPA TD INT    ATT YD    YPA TD Total YDS

323 544 4309 7.92 31 9     416 1984 4.77 13 6293

13     8    4      3    1   2      27   11     5    15   2 — NFL Rank

Defense Stats including RankingsPASSING                                          RUSHING

CMP ATT   YD   YPA   TD    INT      ATT YD   YPA  TD  TOTAL Yards

309   525 3067 5.84   17    19       489 2182 4.46 12   5249

17      23   9      2      8       8        25   26    24   13    15 — NFL Rank

2006 Pro Bowlers: Shawn Andrews (OG), Brian Dawkins (FS), Lito Sheppard (CB)

Stat Leaders

Passing

            Att Cmp Yds TD Int

McNabb 316 180 2647 18 6

Garcia   188 116 1309 10 2

Rushing                Att Yds Avg TD Long

Westbrook 240 1217 5.1 7 71t

Buckhalter   83 345 4.2   2 20

Receiving               Rec Yards Avg TD Long

Westbrook 77 699     9.1   4  52t

L. Smith    50 611     12.2  5  65

R. Brown   46  816    17.7   8 60t

TacklesTrotter 112 (87 Solo, 0 Sacks)

Dawkins 93 (71 Solo, 1 Sack)

Considine 85 (59 Solo, 1.5 Sacks)

InterceptionsSheppard 6

Dawkins 4

M. Lewis 2

SacksCole 8

Walker 6

J. Thomas 6

Kearse 3.5

The Commish Steps Up: Goodell orders Vick to not report to training camp

After everyone including yours truly speculated what would happen next to Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick given the gruesome and disturbing allegations against him for dog fighting, Commissioner Roger Goodell made the first move of “disciplining” him. Though the Commish did not suspend him for life as some animal rights activists were asking to be done. Goodell ordered Vick to not report to the Falcon’s training camp at the team’s training facility in Flowery Branch, GA pending the completion of an NFL review of his recent indictment by a federal grand jury in Richmond, Va. The move was done in a letter to Vick dated Monday July 23rd. In the letter, Goodell said: “While it is for the criminal justice system to determine your guilt or innocence, it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies, including the Personal Conduct Policy.” I believe the unprecedented move was done by Goodell, because of Vick not telling the truth to him at the 2007 draft when asked about dog fighting, the national outcry, and potential loss of fans.

He informed Vick that the review would be completed as soon as possible and that he expects Vick’s full cooperation. Vick now has the most powerful league pointed directly at him along with the federal government and he should be in full back-pedal as fast as Deion Sanders. He did make the wise move of upgrading his legal team by adding high profile lawyer Billy Martin, who has represented Allen Iverson in one of his legal battles in the state of Virginia. Vick who is due in court in Richmond, Va on July 26th will not forfeit his preseason pay during his excused absence from training camp.

The Commish also directed the Falcons to withhold any contemplated team discipline regarding Vick until the NFL review is completed. I believe the Falcons Owner Arthur Blank will have the next move after the NFL’s investigation by making Vick take up to a 4 game leave of absence, which he is allowed to do based on the CBA or even cutting him and taking a $6 Million dollar cap hit in 2006 and $15 Million dollar cap hit in 2007 for bonuses already paid on Vick’s 10 year, $130 Million dollar contract extension from 2004.

With the mounting allegations (read the pdf file of the 18 page indictment for yourself) and public fervor, I think it is in Vick’s best interest to concentrate on his legal battles and let the Falcons get ready for their upcoming season without him and the distractions that he brings.

Stay tuned for another episode of “The Young and Restless” NFL style.

Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Questions

Since I am located in the Philadelphia area and I cover the team on a daily basis, I figured I would make a seperate question section for the Birds.  As the team prepares for the start of training camp in Lehigh, I will have the most in-depth Eagles training camp preview later this week.

  • Is Donovan McNabb healthy and what will happen if he is injured for the 4th time in 6 years and will they regret not bringing back Jeff Garcia?
  • Will Andy Reid let Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg continue to run the football?
  • Will the LB’s improve upon 3 sacks and 2.INTs now that they have added OLB Spikes, jettisoned OLB Dhani Jones, promoted OLB Chris Gcong and made other moves?
  • Are core players FS Brian Dawkins, LT William Thomas, DE Jevon Kearse, MLB Jeremiah Trotter too old?
  • After letting WR Donte Stallworth leave, can 3rd year WR Reggie Brown take the next step up becoming the Eagles go-to guy?
  • With the changes on the D-Line can they stop the run (26th Ranked)?
  • Can 2nd year players DT Bunkely, OLB Gcong, WR/KR Bloom, and OT Justice make an impact, especially first round pick Bunkley (9 TKLS)?
  • Who will long snap and hold for David Akers this season?
  • Can the Eagles cut down on their 96 penalties for 807 yards in 2006 (18th ranked)
  • Will potential free agents and quality players LT Thomas and TE LJ Smith receive contract extensions or will leave after the season like past players (ex. Burgess)
  • Will any of the rookie players make an impact in 2007 or will they be “redshirted”?
  • Will RB Brian Westbrook be healthy again and can he handle 300 touches again?
  • Who is going to be the backup RB and short yardage RB (Tony Hunt or Correll Buckhalter)?
  • Can the Eagles improve on their sack total (40) from last year and will any player reach double-digits?
  • Can Sean Considine replace Michael Lewis and physically hold up to being an every down SS (In the Box)?
  • Is there really a battle for the MLB (Trotter and Omar Gaither) and second CB (Sheldon Brown and William James) positions?