It was a softball of a question, and should have drawn a simple answer. Six weeks ago, New England Patriots safety Eugene Wilson was asked to divulge the single element that made the Indianapolis Colts' offense most combustible.
The interviewer smiled. No, really. Come on, Eugene.
"It's Stokley," Wilson insisted.
Six weeks later, the name doesn't seem like such a punch line. Stokley is not a member of the Colts' Holy Trinity of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. He's not the most acrobatic (Reggie Wayne) or colorful quote (Marcus Pollard) on the team.
But he is, as Wilson said, the element that puts the Colts offense on another plateau.
After nine games, he's leading the team in receiving yardage (665), yards-per-catch (16.2), and has refurbished the mothballed concept of a "killer slot receiver." Not since Az-Zahir Hakim's 1999 season with the St. Louis Rams have we seen such a dangerous fourth option.
"That guy, he can flat get open and run," Wilson said. "He's so quick. That first game of the season we played them, he caught that ball down the middle [a 45-yard touchdown] and really turned it on. Just flew."
Stokley's big days add rocket fuel to the Colts' already explosive offense. In his pair of two-touchdown performances, the Colts scored 94 points in wins over Green Bay and Houston. And his yardage and reception spike has helped complicate matters for defenses that never schemed much beyond Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne (both of whose production is off slightly). Now that Stokley is consistently torching nickel cornerbacks and safeties, he's added a dimension few can handle.
"This is as efficient as we've ever been since I've been here," Colts coach Tony Dungy says. "The quarterback is really just following his reads and throwing the ball to who the pattern dictates. Eventually, when the other guys start being as productive as they have been, we're going to get some different type of coverages, and we're going to get the ball back to [Harrison]."
Two interesting injury developments:
- Pittsburgh Steelers running back Duce Staley moved to get a second opinion in his injured hamstring this week. He'll miss his third straight game with the injury this Sunday, and there apparently is some concern with pain that went from lingering to becoming a consistent problem.
- People in the Carolina Panthers organization are fearful that middle linebacker Dan Morgan's concussion against San Francisco Sunday might have career implications. It's the second concussion in three weeks for Morgan, who had similar problems last season. While Panthers coach John Fox downplayed the problems, some think Morgan might be prone to the injury. A former first round pick, Morgan's overwhelming talent has been offset by injuries throughout his career.
- Maurice Clarett is not helping himself. The former Ohio State running back already had plenty of NFL skeptics before levying a range of accusations against the Buckeyes ranging from financial inducements to academic fraud. Clarett said he did so to clear his name in the eyes of some NFL general managers. Apparently it hasn't changed much.
"What I need to know, I know," said a source in one NFC front office. "Everybody did their homework on that. It's just some stupidity with the maturity end of it. He needs to shut up and bite down … he needs to grow up."
And where would he place Clarett's draft prospects?
"Unless something has changed physically – and it would have to be something really drastic – he'll be a 4th (round) pick probably," the source said. "Somewhere in that second day of the draft. How do you look at the talent any different when he hasn't played [in two years]? He is going to need a lot of coaching, so it comes down to how far away someone thinks he is."
- The award for the worst marriage of a coach and free agent looks as if it's been officially sealed. For a while, we thought it would be notoriously free-willed Giants linebacker Barrett Green and coach Tom Coughlin. But the relationship between Cleveland Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia and Browns coach Butch Davis has plummeted. Davis has made no secret of being upset with Garcia's pocket patience, and his quarterback shot back after Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh:
"You can't become predictable on the field," Garcia told reporters. "For people watching in the stands and people watching from everywhere else, there's too much predictability with what we do offensively. I know we have an emphasis of running the football, but there comes a time when you have to realize that maybe that's not the strength of this team."
Bringing in the aging Garcia for an eyebrow-raising four-year, $25 million contract was Davis' responsibility. Now it might bury his job.
- On the subject of free agent quarterbacks, this summer's market could prove to be more interesting than originally thought. It was expected that Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck would get a contract extension, but now it looks as if he'll be hitting the open market. And despite the talk of the San Diego Chargers possibly designating Drew Brees as their franchise player, we're still hearing that's not likely because of cap implications.
That means a possible market of Brees, Hasselbeck, Quincy Carter and Kurt Warner, who has a contract clause that could make him a free agent after this season. Now mix in the names mentioned as tradable commodities or salary-cap cuts – Drew Bledsoe, David Garrard, Tommy Maddox, Mark Brunell and/or Patrick Ramsey – and it looks to be at least rich in experienced backups.
Aside from Brees, Hasselbeck might be the most intriguing one of the bunch. His numbers have been mediocre this year (11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and he's completed a meager 54 percent of his passes), but it's not all his own regression. If you talk to defensive coordinators who have faced the Seahawks, you hear many of them blame the stone hands and awful route-running of Hasselbeck's receiving corps. As a consequence Hasselbeck's confidence has plummeted, as manifested in some poor decisions. Their bottom line: He's a lot better than he's showing.
- So much for Terrell Owens opening up opportunities for other Philadelphia receivers. Despite Owens getting the overwhelming share of weekly defensive focus, the remaining Eagles receivers haven't been able to capitalize. Critics say part of the problem is Donovan McNabb locking on to Owens, but there has been little on tape that leads you to think he should be looking in the direction of Todd Pinkston or Freddie Mitchell. That pair has combined for a rather pale 30 catches for 549 yards and one touchdown, a little more than half of Owens' production: 55 catches for 884 yards and 12 touchdowns.
- The Detroit Lions are letting it be known that they aren't overly pleased with Joey Harrington's performance of late. But there is an interesting wrinkle that hasn't been talked about much. The Lions still have no running game to back up Harrington, largely because of disappointing offensive line play. Well, the Lions let go of guard Ray Brown this offseason; he's a mentor-type credited by his teammates for a large amount of the line's chemistry last year. Thought to be too old (he's is 41), Brown has been a pleasant find for the Washington Redskins this year, starting seven of nine games at tackle and getting raves for his leadership.
- If rookie first-rounder J.P. Losman turns into the upper tier quarterback the Buffalo Bills expect him to be, his first taste of the NFL should be an interesting side note. It came in Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots, and was rough to say the least. In five snaps, Losman scrambled for five yards; handed off once for no gain; suffered a sack (in which he lost a fumble); threw a completion for five yards; and threw one of the worst interceptions you will ever see.
Upon further review
It's been more than two weeks, and I still can't figure out this quote from Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner for the life of me. Apparently Buckner was talking to the Carolina media about the effects of pressure in an NFL game:
"Pressure will make a monkey eat a hot pepper. If a monkey is hungry and he's pressured to bring something and he sees a yellow thing up there that looks like a banana and he doesn't pay any attention to it, he thinks it's a banana and he takes it back to the little monkey tribe and they eat peppers. But when he goes up in that tree and he doesn't have any pressure, he knows a banana from a hot pepper."
Analysis? Pressure causes mistakes, in a Jungle Book sort of way.