Thursday March 24th, 2005

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- It hasn't been the best of months for Mike Tice personally, but the Vikings head coach can't really quibble with what his football team has accomplished in the past four weeks or so.

Randy Moss and all his negative karma is gone, and Minnesota's roster has been infused with a bevy of veteran talent and leadership. The Vikings needed a defensive tackle to help stuff the run, so they went out signed Pat Williams. They needed an upgrade at linebacker, and came away with both Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart. They needed more playmakers in the secondary, and wound up with both cornerback Fred Smoot and safety Darren Sharper.

The additions were fewer on offense, but Minnesota's void at backup quarterback was filled by a former Super Bowl winner in Brad Johnson, and still-young receiver Travis Taylor will try to take up some of the load that Moss once carried.

All in all, Minnesota might just deserve the tag of the offseason's most improved team.

"We had some things fall our way," admitted Tice at Wednesday morning's NFC coaches media breakfast at the NFL's annual meeting. "The Fred Smoot thing fell our way. We had kind of moved in a different direction, and were working at making moves at linebacker and the safety thing. But we had a great plan, and what was important to us was (owner Red) McCombs gave us the ability to exercise the plan and work the plan.

"We brought in some guys who we had earmarked, and we had some guys who wanted to come to play for us. But did I think we'd be able to hit so many of our spots? No. No way."

On paper at least, the Vikings defense looks stronger than it has been at any point since defensive coordinator Tony Dungy led the unit to a No. 1 overall league ranking in 1992.

"Potentially, yes, because we have so many young stallions," said Tice, when asked if Minnesota defense had a chance to be better than at any point in his coaching tenure. "And now we have some guys who can teach them how to be pros. That's the key. We've got plenty of young stallions, I promise you. Look at our roster. But we needed some veterans to show them how to be good pros. We've got some of those guys now."

Minnesota isn't the only NFC North team with reason to be optimistic about 2005. Despite going 6-10 last year, Detroit is feeling good about itself as well, and there are some who think the Lions will be a playoff team for the first time since 1999.

The possibilities do look intriguing. On offense, if the Lions can get receivers Charles Rogers and Roy Williams healthy and in the lineup at the same time, with second-year running back Kevin Jones continuing to develop, things could get interesting. Especially if the presence of veteran backup quarterback Jeff Garcia ends up motivating starter Joey Harrington to make the necessary elevation of his game.

"If they're all on the field, I think we're pretty darn good," Lions head coach Steve Mariucci said of his young offensive stars. "That's exciting to me, and I think there's a chance of that happening. On paper doesn't matter so much. It's who's on the field. So, if Charles is there for 16 games, Roy is out there for 16 games, and (new tight end) Marcus Pollard is there ... with Kevin Jones, that's good stuff."

On defense, the Lions filled a huge hole at safety by signing Kenoy Kennedy. And they also have the renewed health of linebacker Boss Bailey, who missed all of 2004 injured, to be thankful for.

But the key remains Harrington's fourth-year performance. The Lions have finally turned up the heat on their 2002 first-round pick, and Garcia won't be on the sideline for long if inconsistency continues to plague Harrington's game.

"I think competition is good at any position," Mariucci said. "I think depth is good at any position. When you're young and developing, you have to have a fallback. And that fallback should be a person who doesn't need to take all the reps and still be ready to play, because he's had five years (experience in the system) already.

"Having Jeff allows us to keep practicing and playing Joey, and grooming him and developing him. But yeah, it's time for him to come along, and we expect him to do that. These youngsters have to grow up. Time to grow up."

The Super Bowl will be played at Ford Field next February, and Mariucci this week was reminded for the first of many times that no team has ever played the NFL's biggest game on its own home field. But that's still the goal, Mariucci said.

"Yeah, we have Super Bowl aspirations," he said. "Are we the best team? No. But I think we're getting to a point where we've got a chance. We lost seven close games this year. It was tough. We couldn't finish a game. So I'm assuming we'll be able to do a better job at that this year.

"But we were close. We're getting closer to the playoff hunt. And once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. If you win the division, you've got a home game right there, and good things can happen."

Now the truth can be told in Seattle. The year Mike Holmgren won the Super Bowl with Green Bay, Edgar Bennett led the Packers in rushing with less than 900 yards. This week, Holmgren said he thinks teams that have a running back who leads the NFL in rushing usually don't wind up winning the Super Bowl.

So is that why Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander didn't get that one more carry and that one more yard to at least tie the Jets' Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title in Week 17? Martin finished with 1,697 yards, one more than Alexander.

"Well, actually I've got a little card that says ... ," quipped Holmgren, laughing at the idea that keeps track of everyone's records and he conspired to keep the rushing title out of Alexander's hands. The Seattle running back, of course, sounded off after coming so close to the rushing title, accusing Holmgren of stabbing him in the back in a postgame news conference.

"I do know this, though," Holmgren said. "If you have the rushing leader, you usually don't win the Super Bowl. Those guys that you hand the ball to, hand the ball to, hand the ball to ... that's not enough to win the Super Bowl for you. You have to have more balance than that. And I think if you have one of those guys that needs to have the ball 30 times a game, you get into that game where I go into my Monday press conference and hear how he only carried the ball 20 times. How come you don't give it to them more?

"Well, we were behind, or whatever I have to say. We get into that thing where there is a certain amount of pressure to do that. Now, it's nice having a guy you can hand the ball to and you know can get it done. That's a good feeling for a play-caller. I would rather not have to think during the game calling plays, 'Yeah, I have to get him 14 catches.' That's bad. That doesn't work very well. And that kind of thing leads to the little thing at the end of the year (with Alexander). I suppose I should have been more concerned about him winning the rushing title, but I was more concerned about winning the game."

Most people have Tampa Bay pegged to take a running back with their No. 5 pick in next month's draft -- a slot that would seem perfect to select either Auburn's Carnell Williams or Texas's Cedric Benson. But you get the feeling Bucs head coach Jon Gruden dreams about Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards still being on the board when Tampa Bay's turn comes around.

"If you watch the Michigan State game, you'd say, 'My God, I hope he's there,'" Gruden said. "You see a guy who just carries his team on his back. Every third-down situation, every clutch situation, it's 'Let's find that big guy and let's throw him the ball.' He has made great improvement the last couple years. Man, he's a good player. A very good player. He'd be a great Buc."

Gruden is openly intrigued with the idea of taking another first-round receiver like Edwards or USC's Mike Williams, and putting him on the field at the same time as last year's first-rounder, Mark Clayton, along with veteran Joey Galloway.

"If you get the receiver, you obviously have three very, very good players," Gruden said. "It would strategically change things a little bit. Go back in time a little bit to the 1997-98 playbooks (in Oakland), where you air the splits out a little bit and play a little bit more one-back. That would be exciting for me. I would like that and I think our players wouldn't mind that."

And if the Bucs go with one of the big three running backs at No. 5?

"You have to decide whether or not you think one of those guys is top-five material," he said, sounding as if he's far from making up his own mind. "You've got to consider that. That's something you've got to wrestle with."

New Dolphins head coach Nick Saban is a no-nonsense, all-business kind of guy, but he did provide our favorite moment of the week at the NFL's annual meeting with a rather telling slip of the tongue.

Asked if he was committed to A.J. Feeley as his starting quarterback in light of signing veteran backup Gus Frerotte, Saban launched into a less than impassioned defense of Feeley.

"Well, we don't really have a depth chart right now," Saban said. "We've never coached these guys. We've never been on the field. Everybody wants to know who the starting this is and the starting that is. I mean, basically we're going to give Jay Fielder every opportunity to be our quarterback. That's all I ever said about that. And we want to work very hard to develop him."

Which is going to be difficult, given that Fiedler, the Dolphins starter for most of the past five seasons, signed as a backup with the Jets earlier this month.

From Gruden, when asked about his team's spate of injuries last season:

"We blame a little bit on our facility, with the planes dripping fuel on us."

The Bucs team facility is archaic by current NFL standards, and located right next to Tampa International Airport.

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