For the first time in his career, people are starting to recognize Seattle Seahawks kicker Josh Brown around town for who he is and not just a bald guy who closely resembles teammate and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
"Oh yeah, it has definitely helped me," said Brown, who has occasionally signed autographs as Hasselbeck in the past. "I'm serious. It's definitely affected my life. It's been good for me, good for my career … People come up to me all the time and say, 'You're my kicker on my fantasy team, you're saving my season.' "
More to the point, Brown has saved Seattle's season with four game-winning field goals, including two against division-rival St. Louis. Brown, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, is having one of the great clutch years ever for a kicker. Among the four kicks are two of 50 yards or longer, including a 54-yarder as time ran out against St. Louis in Week 6.
That's all part of a league-wide trend that could produce at least 20 such games for the second year in a row. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 16 games this season decided by a field goal in the final minute, which puts the league on pace for 21. In 2005, there were 20 such games, up from 15 in 2004 and 14 in 2003.
Of course, this is just a derivative effect of games becoming increasingly closer in the NFL. Aside from Brown, Tennessee's Rob Bironas has hit such kicks in each of the past two weeks, including a 60-yarder to beat Indianapolis last Sunday.
While no other kicker has more than one, there has been a spike in the number of long game-winners this season. There have been a total of six from 50 or longer, including the three by Brown and Bironas combined. The longest was a 62-yarder by Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant against Cincinnati in Week 6. In 2005, only two of 20 game-winners came from 50 or beyond.
"I think that's just how the opportunities have been coming out," Brown said of the long field goals. "It's hard to predict where you're going to be on the field. Basically, anytime you're at 50 to 60 yards, the chances of making it is 50 percent. Either you do it or not."
"Do it or not" has sort of been Brown's approach on field goals for the better part of the past two seasons. He said he learned an important lesson during a loss to Washington in the fourth game of 2005. Brown missed a game-tying 47-yarder to end regulation when he tried to put too much into the kick and hit the left upright.
"I tried to put it all into that one kick and it missed. The key is that you have to treat every kick the same, whether it's a PAT, a 20-yarder or a 40-yarder. You can't get too aggressive. If you allow the pressure to get to you, you can talk yourself out of making a good kick."
But the big question for Brown these days is whether he'll be able to parlay his success on the field into a little success with country singer Carrie Underwood, who like Brown is an Oklahoma native. Brown went to one of her concerts during the summer and met her backstage. He also recently sent flowers.
However, he might be facing a challenge from Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. During a recent interview, Romo threw some attention toward Underwood after declining to talk about his rumored date with Jessica Simpson. Romo was asked, "Who do you like right now out of all the women out there?" His answer: "I'll tell you who is doing things the right way from what I hear is Carrie Underwood."
Brown laughed about that, albeit a little nervously.
"She has thanked me for the flowers I sent her," Brown said. "Quarterbacks always have the upper hand, but I'm from Oklahoma. We're both from Oklahoma. We'll see."
TROUBLE IN MIAMI
Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban is facing some issues these days, ones that are a lot more troublesome than the never-ending rumor that he is the leading candidate for the Alabama job. Does Alabama want Saban? No question, but Saban has given his word to owner Wayne Huizenga that he isn't leaving and Huizenga is not a person Saban should cross anytime soon.
That said, Saban is at a crossroads with the Dolphins. In trying to be competitive right away, Saban kept a lot of veteran players and signed many others, such as defensive linemen Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday. The Dolphins have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL.
So, does Saban try to further patch-work the team this offseason to make it a winner in 2007? Or does he cut a lot of the veteran players in favor of going younger, but risk alienating the fan base (and ultimately Huizenga) in the process.
"Realistically, [Saban] probably has one more year before the owner gets impatient," said a source close to the situation. "This is a team with a lot of holes."
The most prominent veteran to consider will be linebacker Zach Thomas, who is due to count for $7.987 million against the cap in 2007. Of that amount, $5.65 million is in base salary and Thomas has two years remaining on his deal. That means the team could save either $3.3 million or $5.65 million in 2007 if they release him before or after June 1.
Then again, fixing the quarterback situation remains paramount. If the Dolphins can get Daunte Culpepper back to health this offseason, he could fix a lot of the problems. That's a big if, but possible. What is clear to the Dolphins is that backup Joey Harrington is not the answer. At best, Harrington is a good backup, but his decision-making remains a huge problem after six years in the NFL.
As for the Alabama job, Saban admitted that his agent Jimmy Sexton was contacted by the school. However, Saban also said he never spoke directly with anyone from the university. The Miami Herald reported Thursday that Saban was offered the job by Alabama, including a $5 million annual salary and $7 million up front. Both Sexton and the Alabama board of trustees denied the report.
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
With the Jacksonville Jaguars putting quarterback Byron Leftwich on injured reserve for the remainder of the season, there is almost no question that Leftwich will be traded (if the Jaguars are lucky) or released in the coming offseason.
Leftwich and his $7 million in base compensation and bonus money simply don't make sense for Jacksonville. That's particularly true given that backup David Garrard is basically the same player. In fact, for the money, Garrard is much better. His scheduled base salary for 2007 is $1 million.
Having played the past six games, Garrard has now basically played the rough equivalent of a full season during his career. He has completed 256 of 447 passes for 2,896 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Those numbers aren't overwhelming, but they do show some promise. Moreover, they compute to a career rating of 80.5, including 86.2 this season. Most significantly, Garrard is averaging 6.5 yards per pass attempt for his career and 7.3 yards per attempt this season. He is also averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt for his career.
By comparison, Leftwich, who was a first-round pick in 2003, has completed 789 of 1,344 passes in his career for 9,042 yards, 51 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. That computes to a career rating of 80.5, exactly the same as Garrard.
As for this season, Leftwich's numbers were down slightly as he had an overall rating of 79.0. For his career, Leftwich has averaged 6.7 yards per pass attempt, including 6.3 this season. His rushing ability is almost meaningless as he averaged 3 yards per carry, including a miniscule 1.6 yards this season.
Of course, breaking down numbers doesn't always mean much in football. That said, Garrard's numbers this season would be a lot better if not for a four-interception game against the Texans in Week 10. Two of the four were on passes dropped by wide receiver Matt Jones and that was the only game in which Garrard has been intercepted.
In other words, the fact that the numbers are this close favors Garrard, who might still have growth potential. By contrast, Leftwich hasn't improved much over the years and he has been so injury-prone that he might never get much better. Throw in the fact that Leftwich has a terrible hitch in his throwing motion and a bad delivery (he gains way too much ground when he steps into his throws) and there just isn't much reason to believe that Garrard can't do better.
GOOD STUDY HABITS
One of the unsung heroes of last week was second-year center Ben Wilkerson, who became the third player to line up at that spot for the Cincinnati Bengals this season. Wilkerson took over when starter Ed Ghiaciuc, who was already starting in place of Rich Braham, got hurt in the first half.
Nice debut situation for Wilkerson, who hadn't played in anything more than an exhibition since he suffered a torn left patellar tendon on Oct. 23, 2004 while playing for LSU. Because of the injury, Wilkerson went undrafted in 2005 even though he was the co-winner of the Rimington Award in 2004 as the top center in college.
The road back was challenging from a physical standpoint. Wilkerson said he has just started to return to his previous athletic ability this year. Wilkerson got to step onto the field against Baltimore in a critical division game as the Bengals tried to hold on to their playoff hopes.
"I looked up and there's Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Adalius Thomas out there, all these guys you dream about going out there and hitting," Wilkerson said. "But after a couple of plays, you forget about all that and it's just football."
What helped Wilkerson was his strong study habits. Over the two years he has been with the team, Wilkerson has consistently been one of the highest scorers on the weekly test the Bengals offensive linemen have to take.
"I miss one question once in awhile, but I've had a lot of perfect scores," Wilkerson said. Each night before game day, the linemen take the test, going over the different protections they're supposed to run depending on what defensive front they are about to face.
Against the Ravens, Wilkerson was stunning. The Ravens blitzed approximately 16 times, hoping to get pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer and continue their sack binge. Baltimore had nine sacks in its previous game against Pittsburgh.
However, the Bengals surrendered just two against the Ravens despite the change in the middle. In addition, rookie left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a second-round pick who many teams considered too stiff to play that position, did an outstanding job against Baltimore pass-rush specialist Terrell Suggs.
Still, it came back to the work of Wilkerson in laying a foundation for the protection.
"What you do up front is on the center to get us in the right call," Bengals Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson said. "He's got to get up there and call it and make sure he has everybody on the right page … Ben did a great job. He was on top of that. But we had a lot of trust in him because we know how well he does on the tests."
TOUGH CALL FOR SIMMS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, who hasn't played since the third week of the season because of a ruptured spleen, is facing a very tough decision. The Bucs have offered Simms a two-year extension on his contract, according to league sources. The deal isn't overwhelming from a financial side, but it's enough to have Simms interested.
In particular, it's interesting because it's hard to judge Simms' value on the open market if he were to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Simms played valiantly through injury in the third game of the season, but his performance in the first two games was poor.
Overall, Simms had seven interceptions and one touchdown through the first three games and was averaging only 5.5 yards per pass attempt, down from 6.5 in 2005. While Simms has lots of physical promise, the spleen injury and results are a tough sell. Furthermore, Simms doesn't have great confidence at this point, meaning that he might be better off working with people whom he's comfortable.
But Tampa Bay is 3-9 and tied with Arizona for the third-worst record in the league. That could put the Buccaneers in position to take Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, who is considered the top quarterback in the draft.
Thus, Simms could sign the extension and then find himself languishing for at least one if not both years of the deal.
Speaking of Tampa, the offer to Simms could be considered a sign that coach Jon Gruden is safe for another season. While many people who deal with the Buccaneers believe that's the case, there are rumblings that the Glazer family is not particularly happy with the recent results posted by Gruden (26-34 since the Super Bowl season). Owner Malcolm Glazer, who is in failing health after a stroke, has much less say on a day-to-day basis, giving sons Bryan and Joel Glazer more control over the club. The brothers are considered much less patient than their father.
Give Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski a lot of credit. In recent weeks, Bratkowski has helped quarterback Carson Palmer out by calling plays quickly and allowing the offense to get to the line with plenty of time on the play clock. Against Baltimore, for instance, the Bengals' offense regularly got to the line with 18 seconds remaining. That gave Palmer extra time to look over the line.
A final note on the Bengals: Much has been made of their defense over the past three games in which they combined to allow 23 points and set a team record with seven consecutive quarters without allowing a point. Nice run, but it came despite giving up 510 yards to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (Cincinnati intercepted him twice in the end zone) and got significant help from facing the limited offenses of Cleveland and Baltimore. In short, tip your cap to Cincy, but don't buy the hype just yet.