By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
As political commentator George Will noted in an excellent column last week, one that emphasized that the increased size and hitting torque of players might make it impossible for the NFL to inevitably address all of its concussion-related issues, football is a game for big people.
That doesn't mean, though, there isn't still room for some smaller playmakers. And teams continue to look for them.
That isn't to suggest that the Darren Sproles-sized back will become commonplace in the league. Certainly the New Orleans star, who established a single-season mark for all-purpose yards (2,696) in 2011 and registered 86 catches, is a special talent at 5-feet-6. There simply aren't many guys like him.
But there has been a bit of a re-emphasis on the smaller, change-of-pace back in the past few seasons, and that's likely to continue.
"I just think that, if you get me in some situations, I'm going to make (defenders) miss, and be able to make plays," said Atlanta second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers, who, like Sproles, is only 5-6. "There's a place for me."
First-year Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has insisted during the offseason that he wants to reduce the workload for starter Michael Turner this year and also introduce the screen pass to the Atlanta attack, something that was sorely missing under predecessor Mike Mularkey for four years. The aim in both cases is to take advantage of Rodgers' quickness in space, his ability to elude tacklers and, of course, his big-play speed.
Koetter, though, isn't the only coordinator so inclined. The smaller back might not be quite in vogue yet around the league, but teams are looking more toward that type of No. 2 runner as a viable complement to their starter. Statistics indicate that the physical profile at the starting tailback position hasn't varied a whole lot from 10 years ago. The average dimensions from 2002 to the 32 presumptive starters for this season, in fact, are eerily similar.
But there are a number of factors - the emphasis on speed, the continued erosion of tackling in the NFL, particularly in space, and the increase in big plays - has made the smaller back of more interest to teams again.
In Pittsburgh, fifth-round rookie Chris Rainey, a former University of Florida star with blistering speed and quickness and premier fluidity, is expected to be a key part of the new offense installed by first-year coordinator Todd Haley. When he was in Kansas City, Haley developed a similar role for the undersized Dexter McCluster, who occasionally aligns in the slot. Notably, both Rainey and Rodgers scored touchdowns in their respective teams' Thursday night preseason openers.
"As much as anything," Rainey said last week, "the game is about matchups and creating advantages with whatever (means) you can. And I just think there are some guys who, (despite) their size, can do it with speed."
Obviously, that opinion is increasingly shared by many in the league.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
The word out of Seattle that recently signed wide receiver Terrell Owens has looked pretty good so far in practices apparently isn't club-produced hyperbole. A few of the Seahawks' defenders who have gone against the veteran in camp suggested that T.O. still has something left in the tank.
He is, according to the defenders, in fairly good shape given his time away from the game. And while he might not be quite as quick as the 4.45 time that was advertised, the fact he is such a longstrider probably helps create a perception that Owens, a high waist, long-armed player with great size, is probably moving a bit better than he actually is.
The Seahawks desperately need an "X" receiver, and Owens could seriously challenge not just for playing time, but perhaps for a starting spot. The team's other high profile addition at the position, Braylon Edwards, has been spotty so far.
Incumbent Sidney Rice, still recovering from the effects of 2011 concussions and offseason surgeries to both shoulders, and not yet involved in contact, might not be ready to start the season, and that could further boost Owens' stock.
One more observation on Owens: There have been plenty of questions about his ability, at age 38, to get off of press coverage and separate. Fair enough skepticism. But being in the Seattle camp, and working everyday against the tandem of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman should actually help him. The young Seahawks corners play a lot of press coverage, and each has great size, with both 6-feet-3 or taller. So Owens isn't working against smaller cornerbacks he can physically dominate.
--The performance of Owens, and the solid reports on older wideouts like Randy Moss in San Francisco and Miami's potty-mouthed Chad Ochocinco/Johnson (anyone see the opening episode of "Hard Knocks," in which Dolphins first-year coach Joe Philbin cautioned Johnson for dropping the F-bomb so much during a news conference?), might hasten the return of Plaxico Burress to someone's camp.
Despite the he-said/she-said reports from Dallas, the Cowboys have discussed internally the potential for adding Burress at some point, but want to give things another week or two and provide some young pass-catchers an opportunity before they summon Burress.
In Pittsburgh, where Mike Wallace's continued absence has left the Steelers precariously thin at the position, the club seems to be leaning more toward keeping an eye on the waiver wire than on Burress. That's not to suggest the Steelers have ruled out Burress, who turned down an opportunity to rejoin his original NFL team last year, but that general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin will closely monitor guys who have been in training camp and could get released.
Burress, who turns 35 on Sunday, remains an effective red-zone receiver. Thirty-five of his career 63 touchdowns, including all but one of his eight scores in 2011, came in the red zone. There is some perception in the league that Burress has some problems separating from coverage, but he still has great size, long arms and leaping ability.
Whether that translates into a guy who can help a team as something more than a red zone specialist remains to be seen.
--The New York Jets have to develop a complementary tailback to spell starter Shonn Greene, who has had a solid time-sharing partner (first Thomas Jones and then Tomlinson) all three seasons in the league.
With little experience behind Greene on the roster, the choices almost certainly come down to a pair of former fourth-round draft choices, Joe McKnight (2010) and Bilal Powell (2011).
Early word is that Powell, a onetime Louisville standout who was the 126th overall pick last year, is the early leader in the competition to see who wins the spot as Greene's caddie. Powell, who rushed for 1,405 yards and 11 scores at Louisville in 2010, appears to be the stronger and more physical inside runner early in camp, and, while he appeared in just two games and registered only 21 yards on 13 carries as a rookie, at least to this point has reinforced the notion that he can be a steady, No. 2 guy.
The Jets actually began to suspect that last season, despite his scant opportunities. McKnight is the shiftier of the two, and has demonstrated the kind of wiggle that might be expected from a guy who's been used in the return game, but will have to display more toughness.
No matter who wins the No. 2 spot, the New York coaches are still concerned about locating a reliable third-down back. Powell and McKnight both have deficiencies as pass protection and blitz pickup blockers.
--The 10-snap cameo appearance that Peyton Manning made in his return to the field on Thursday night demonstrated that the four-time Most Valuable Player hasn't lost his sense of timing or his feel on short and intermediate routes.
But it did show that the Denver wide receivers still have some work to do in matching Manning's nonpareil precision, even after a summer of working with him on some of the finer points he demands of his pass-catchers. Manning termed the return "a big step," but there were some missteps by his wide receivers, or his comeback might have been even better.
On at least three of Manning's attempts - he was 4-for-10 for 44 yards with a long completion of 19 yards and didn't really challenge the Chicago defense with the deep ball - Denver receivers either throttled down on their routes, made wrong route conversions or ran sloppy patterns, one Broncos coach said on Friday morning.
Those are the kinds of errors that Manning, who expects everyone to play up to his level of preparedness and proficiency, doesn't well reconcile.
On one of the routes, the coach relayed, wideout Demaryius Thomas slowed his gait just enough that the timing was off, and the pass was incomplete. On the next play, Manning threw slightly behind Brandon Stokley, who has previous experience with the quarterback in Indianapolis, and the ball was tipped and intercepted. Stokley allowed after the game that he ran a poor route.
On a whole, the coach said, the staff was pleased with Manning's performance and the way in which he moved the Broncos, but the receivers still have some work to do in not only matching up with his expectations, but also synchronizing routes.
--One of the more difficult tasks for any coach is determining the playing time for his starting quarterback in the preseason opener, and Thursday night's games kind of demonstrated the uncertainty involved in the decision.
Philadelphia coach Andy Reid drew some criticism for having Michael Vick in the game for a second series - a possession that ended with Vick smashing his left thumb off the helmet of center Jason Kelce, and suffering a bruise/contusion that could sideline him for a few days in camp - but the Eagles' starter had logged just three snaps in his lone previous series.
"You've been away from the game for a while, and haven't gone against a 'live' pass rush for six or seven months, and you want to get comfortable with people buzzing around you," allowed Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who played 19 snaps and three series at Atlanta on Thursday evening. "For a coach it's kind of a 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' kind of deal."
Of the dozen projected starters who were in Thursday night games, only one, Chicago's Jay Cutler, didn't play at all. Manning and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger each worked just one series, but both got double-digit snaps. And the Steelers' starter actually registered 15 snaps in a laborious, opening field-goal drive.
Only the Falcons' Matt Ryan took more than three series (he worked four), and it may have been in part determined by a short possession in which he threw an interception.
Ryan (22 snaps) and Flacco (19) had the biggest workloads, Drew Brees of New Orleans (six snaps in two three-and-out possessions) the shortest. The Philadelphia season could have been over even before it began, had Vick sustained a serious thumb injury, but it's probably unfair to suggest he shouldn't have been playing.
"I do think," Flacco said, "that most guys want to at least get enough time to get comfortable in there and somewhat re-acclimated again."
--Of the 60 clubs that have qualified for the postseason since the NFL implemented four-team divisions in 2002, only seven went through the year with negative point differentials (surrendering more points than they scored), and the New York Giants of 2011 were the only such franchise to claim a Super Bowl title.
The Giants finished the regular season with a minus-6 point differential, actually pretty modest when one considers that Denver won the AFC West crown at minus-81. Clearly, getting hot in postseason play sort of negated that fact, and, of course, not all the culpability can be laid at the hands of an offense that averaged a robust 24.6 points during the year, and nine times scored more than 25 points.
But in addition to rectifying a defense that didn't really hit full stride until the playoffs, the Giants' coaches want to be more efficient, and also more explosive on offense in 2012.
Under coach Tom Coughlin, the Giants will always emphasize balance. But the maturation of Eli Manning, and the development of wideouts like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks (currently on the active PUP list), the Giants feel, will permit them to open up the passing game a bit more.
Toward that end, New York receivers believe they're running their routes a little deeper in '12, have added some adjustments and will throw the ball down the field more than a year ago. The Giants are one of several teams that have expanded the use of some route-adjustment techniques that have their roots in run-and-shoot principles, and could expand the field as a result.
--There were a few significant injuries on Thursday night, including a couple that figure to be season-ending. One of the more noteworthy was the broken clavicle sustained by San Diego tailback Ryan Mathews, and that is expected to keep the Chargers' starter out 4-6 weeks.
The team's first-round pick in 2010, but a player whose durability has been questioned, Mathews had been excellent in camp, and appeared ready to become the latest workhorse in a long line of Norv Turner backs who carried the ball 300-plus times in a season.
Mathews is also a very good receiver out of the backfield, and that was to be a key component in a Chargers' passing attack that has been somewhat retooled.
"It's a damn shame," quarterback Philip Rivers said of the injury.
At various points of the preseason, some people had questioned the wisdom of general manager A.J. Smith in signing veteran tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle as one-year "rental" players. In the wake of the injury to Mathews, though, the Chargers will have to lean on each of the backs now until their starter returns.
--Philadelphia special teams coordinator Bobby April, one of the best kicking-games coaches in the league, proclaimed during the offseason that the Eagles' return game, among the worst in the league in 2011, would be significantly better.
It's just one preseason opener, so no one should jump to any premature conclusions, but the early indications are that the additions of rookies Brandon Boykin (fourth round) and Damaris Johnson (undrafted free agent) will boost a return game that lagged in 2011.
Boykin, a former University of Georgia standout who established an SEC career record for kickoff return average and had four touchdowns in college, had a 46-yard runback on the opening kickoff. And he brought the ball back despite starting eight yards deep in the end zone.
"I've got great faith in my speed and my ability to make something happen," said Boykin, who compiled 89 yards on three returns.
Johnson wasn't quite as good on punts, but displayed his speed on a 70-yard scoring reception, and has also demonstrated in camp that he might be a game-breaker type of return man.
The Eagles ranked 31st in the NFL in kickoff returns in 2011 (20.9-yard average, with a long of only 33 yards) and were No. 27 in punt returns (7.1-yard average), and the two rookies might help April keep his promise.
Johnson's presence could also keep wide receiver DeSean Jackson from having to serve full-time on punt returns.
--There wasn't a lot of national attention paid to a recent Yahoo.com! report detailing a fraud and breach of contract lawsuit brought against superagent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents more than 100 NFL players. But rival player representatives certainly took note of the action and are trying to pile on Rosenhaus, not exactly the most popular guy in the agent community.
There have been plenty of inquiries about Rosenhaus, many of them to the NFLPA, which certifies agents, the past few weeks, most of them initiated by other agents. A number of them have questioned his relationship with South Florida financial advisor Jeff Rubin, and it will be interesting to see if anything results from them.
On another front, word is that there could be some compelling information released about a fairly prominent agent in the not too distant future, perhaps including testimony from a third party that he was compensated for helping to "deliver" a player.
--As various reports have indicated, the Jaguars really don't anticipate holdout tailback Maurice Jones-Drew reporting to camp anytime soon.
Things could change with one phone call, of course, but Jacksonville executives seem to be holding firm to their stance that they won't revisit a contract that has two seasons remaining on it. At least, not until MLD gets into camp.
There's even been a bit of a whispering campaign that Jones-Drew, who led the NFL in rushing last season, has lost some of his quickness and explosiveness. For now, the Jaguars seem prepared to move forward with third-year veteran Rashad Jennings, who has three career starts and just 123 carries.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll has cautioned that observers shouldn't read too much into his decision to start Matt Flynn at quarterback in the Saturday preseason opener against Tennessee, but there are indications that the Seahawks' staff is definitely leaning toward the free agent acquisition as the regular season No. 1 guy. Flynn and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson are still basically taking the same amount of snaps in practice, but Flynn, while lacking some arm strength, has demonstrated better touch, accuracy and command of the offense. ... In another competition at the quarterback spot, the early camp estimations that second-year veteran Jake Locker could supplant Matt Hasselbeck as the Titans' starter could still be a little bit premature. Locker is clearly the better athlete, and with a superior arm, but has regressed some in terms of accuracy, a bugaboo during his rookie season. ... Finally, on the quarterback competition front, first-round pick Ryan Tannehill is definitely making a strong move in Dolphins camp. His accuracy has been even better than the Miami staff projected and, obviously, he's got a solid grasp of the offense of coordinator Mike Sherman, his former college head coach at Texas A&M. ... A few teams who might be seeking an upgrade at the No. 2 quarterback spot are keeping close tabs on the Miami situation, eyeing Matt Moore. The Dolphins' 2011 starter is well respected in several league precincts. ... The early read from players on the league's replacement referees, beyond some of the obvious gaffes committed so far, is that the fill-ins are having problems with holding calls. ... While the Eagles could get a return games boost from Boykin and Johnson, as noted above, the Baltimore coaches think five-year veteran Jacoby Jones could offer the same kind of special teams bump. Signed as a free agent after Houston released him, Jones has flashed great speed in camp, Ravens officials said Friday night, and has been more consistent fielding the ball. There is even some optimism that Jones might be able to play as a No. 4 receiver in some situations. ... Cleveland first-round tailback Trent Richardson demonstrated at Alabama that he's a quick healer. But they're holding their breath in the Browns' offices that Richardson, who underwent a procedure on his right knee this week, will be ready for the season opener. ... The situation with Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who is entering the final season of his contract, indeed bears watching, as some reports have suggested. Haslett has always had some mercenary leanings, and the Redskins added former Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris, a former league coordinator, to the staff as secondary coach in the offseason. ... One of the early standouts in Pittsburgh's camp has been nose tackle Steve McLendon, who is holding down the fort until Pro Bowl regular Casey Hampton is rehabilitated from his offseason knee surgery. A third-year veteran, McLendon is bigger and stronger, and could give the Steelers some inside pass-rush push Hampton doesn't typically provide. Hampton is on PUP and it's still questionable whether he'll be ready for the season opener. ... It wasn't all that surprising, at least to NFL personnel people, that former Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill announced his retirement this week, at just age 28 and after only six seasons in the league. At one point regarded as a premier pass protector, McNeill came into the league with some well documented back problems and last year suffered a neck injury. McNeill had suggested recently that he was fine physically, and his agent claimed he had been cleared to return, but the Eagles examined him in the wake of the Jason Peters injury, and the physical reports that came out of that were not optimistic. Philly ended up signing Demetress Bell instead. In a league where offensive linemen are always treasured, particularly left tackles, there were questions even from teams that hadn't done their homework on McNeill about why he was still unsigned. ... Tampa Bay third-year cornerback Myron Lewis has taken advantage of some injuries to have a solid camp, and could at least challenge for nickel playing time. ... When Jacksonville chose Eugene Monroe in the first round in 2009 and Ebon Britton in the second, the design was the two tackles to be the club's longtime bookends. And, except for injuries, that has pretty much been the case. But that could end, with the move of Britton from right tackle to left guard, at least temporarily. There's a possibility that Britton, who has started just 10 games the past two seasons because of injuries, will go back to his regular right tackle spot. For now, though, the first-year Jacksonville staff has been impressed with partnering Monroe and Britton on the left side. ... He isn't the same kind of back as Michael Bush, who departed in free agency, but Oakland coaches were pleased with the work of Mike Goodson as a viable backup to Darren McFadden before he suffered a head injury in practice this week. The head injury was not serious and Goodson, acquired from Carolina in the offseason, should be able to return soon. The Raiders staff is hopeful that Goodson will pick up where he left off.
THE LAST WORD
"What is my gut telling me? I really don't know. He really didn't give me any body language on what is going to happen. He just wasn't really pleased about seeing me in there. No person (wants) to see a person in their office twice in one year. Anybody should be worried about going to see the commissioner twice in one year, to tell you the truth. I just have to take it on the chin and move forward." - Fourth-year Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt, who has been involved in eight police-related incidents since the Titans drafted him in the first round in 2009 and who was arrested on DUI charges last month, on his Monday meeting in New York with commissioner Roger Goodell