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Tough guys wanted


I'm not a good evaluator of running backs ... or let's put it this way, I get too caught up in the blood and guts of it, the passion. And I forget the important corporate issues such as blitz pick-up and ability to adjust to the passing game, on the go, and playbook proficiency. And of course, speed. All the desire in the world won't take a tenth of a second off a guy's 40 time.

I see so many runners who get through a game smoothly, making the correct reads, running through a hole if it's there, falling down when they get tackled. And at the end of the game they have their 80 or 90 yards, and at the end of the season, 1,000, and they haven't done a single thing to inspire anything but mild interest.

But I'll get emotional about the backs who run with emotion. I just wish the league were kinder toward them. Mike Bell, Denver Broncos, an undrafted rookie last year. A great story ... bucked the odds, etc. Can anyone forget the game he had against the Colts on Oct. 29, running for 135 yards in the second half with the kind of fury that can ignite a whole team? Brought you right up out of your chair.

Where is Mike Bell now? Recycled in MikeShanahan's musical chairs system. Benched in favor of Tennessee import Travis Henry, who's on track to be Shanahan's seventh 1000-yard back -- if the NFL doesn't suspend him -- and free-agent rookie Selvin Young from the University of Texas. Bell has been shifted to fullback, where he backs up Cecil Sapp. A few weeks ago it was pointed out to Shanahan that Bell wasn't exactly happy with his role.

"They like to be employed," the coach said. "They get more enthused about the job when they find out they've actually got a check coming in."

Ooh, that's a cold one.

Here's another former Bronco hero who's dropped off the face of the earth -- Reuben Droughns. What a story in 2004; led the Broncos to the playoffs with 1,240 yards rushing, after four years as a nonentity in the league. No real speed but a splattering, knock 'em dead style that drove the fans wild. His unrelenting passion made him the star of the weekly highlight shows.

Traded to Cleveland the next season, put up good numbers his first year, on a losing team that nobody watched, playing behind a mediocre offensive line. Starting to burn out last year, and then traded to the Giants, where he is third man in. Does anyone still remember what he did three years ago? Could he still do it if someone slapped him on the back and said, "We want you to be what you once were?" Who knows?

Right now I can't think of a runner who plays with the passion of the Cowboys' Marion Barber. He starts each game on the bench. Ten out of 10 people would tell you he's a better player than the starter, Julius Jones. I can understand the theory ... sort of. Use Jones as a softening element, finish the other team off with Barber. It's the old shock troops approach popularized by Knute Rockne more than 80 years ago -- soften 'em up with his second unit, which he called, "my shock troops," then bring in his big guys when the enemy is tired.

It's a theory, but how come nobody else does it? What would happen, for instance, if the Chargers would give the opponent a heavy dose of their big hammer, 237-pound Michael Turner, for a while and then bring in LaDainianTomlinson when the defense was starting to sag? Well, Tomlinson wouldn't like it. His numbers would go down, which probably would affect his contract. Turner wouldn't like getting yanked just when he was starting to warm up. The fans certainly wouldn't like it. There would be riots in the streets, bonfire rallies, angry call-ins during the Sunday sermons on the radio.

And I'm sure Barber would be happier with his role if he were the featured back, able to show what kind of stats he could really put up, given that status.

"He's so versatile that he's a perfect guy to finish a game for you," says BillParcells, Barber's coach at Dallas last year. "Actually his versatility hurts his status as a featured back. I'll tell you, though. If I'd have had a third down back at Dallas, a Dave Meggett type, I'd have made Barber my featured back."

I'm sure these are perfectly logical reasons. It just makes me a little sad to see three guys who throw so much passion into their work handed less than they deserve in return.

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Well, it's official now. It's policy. FoxTV will not, repeat not, be bringing you starting lineups at the beginning of their games. The decision was made by David Hill, Chairman of Fox Sports. I placed a quick call. Did he realize the effect this was having on my charts, that often I have to run the tape back many times to see who had started the game, that sometimes I even had to obtain a play-by-play, postgame, to find out who had been on the field at the beginning of things? I don't think it made an impression.

"Look, we're now living in a different world," he said. "People look forward to a certain game all week. There's excitement at the beginning, a tingle. They don't want the action slowed down by a bunch of stupid names and faces across the screen."

But those names and faces tell me who's on the field.

"To me those lineups are antediluvian. I am sick and tired of seeing them at the beginning of the action."

Antediluvian. "Of and relating to a period before the Deluge, hence antiquated," according to my old Webster. Or, to use the word as a noun, "one who is very old or behind the times, an 'old fogy.'"

That's me. An old fogy. Just as I was at the start of Fox's presentation of Tampa at Indianapolis, because I wanted to know about a Colts' lineup containing many positions in doubt. Marvin Harrison, in or out at wide receiver? Plus his back-up, Aaron Moorhead, plus the close-in tight end, Ben Utecht. Ditto prime runner Joseph Addai. And key defenders (they defend keys) LB Freddy Keiaho and SS Bob Sanders. Now there's a network superstar ... Sanders, plugged unmercifully. How about telling us whether or not he's in or out of the game?

I tried telling that to David Hill, but I could tell I was losing ground when I got around to names such as Utecht and Keiaho. For years network people have been telling me that only wackos and purists, for which I qualify on both counts, care about people such as that. There are storylines to set up, keys to the game, stars to plug, plus other thrilling events.

"You want to know who's in or out?" Hill said. "The announcers will give you that in their stand-up. I don't want the screen cluttered up with that."

But the announcers did not give me that. Yes they did, he said. No they didn't, I said. Yes they did. And the argument raged. When our conversation was over I called Fox's PR department and asked them if they could send me a tape, so I could see for myself (I hadn't saved my tape of the pre-game). They said they would. Coming right up. They never sent it. You just can't win, folks. When you're dealing with corporate America, you just can't win.

Random thoughts: How could the Vikings run for all those yards on the Bears? Only yesterday I heard myself asking that. Comes the dawning of a new day and an answer arrives. Look at their front four that started the Super Bowl. From left to right, Wale Ogunleye, a pass rusher, Tank Johnson, who could do everything, Ian Scott, a two-gapper and a classic run-stopper, Alex Brown, a hustler, active in the pass rush and in run pursuit. Backing them up was 305-pound Alfonso Boone, a disrupter inside, and wingman Mark Anderson, a pass-rush specialist.

Lining up against the Vikings last Sunday were Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, a penetrator who came back from a knee injury this season, journeyman AnthonyAdams, a San Francisco import, and Anderson, who weighs 255. Scott went to Philadelphia, Johnson is suspended and Boone is in K.C., where he's raising hell on the defensive line. Not a stellar group for the Bears, and backing them is MLB Brian Urlacher, a space player, not a plugger. That's why the Vikings ran for all those yards.

I haven't gotten a whole lot of looks at every team, but the two best DEs I've seen so far are the Chiefs' Jared Allen, whom I picked all-pro last year, and the 49ers' Maurice Douglas. Douglas is going so hard and at such a furious pace that I wonder whether or not he'll be able to keep it up all season ... I can't find an all-pro cornerback. Champ Bailey is hurt now, but he wasn't against Indianapolis and he wasn't impressive. The Colts' wide tight end, Dallas Clark, was tearing up the Broncos defense, so in the fourth quarter they moved Bailey over to man-up against him. "Champ Bailey now playing Dallas Clark," PhilSimms said on CBS. Then Clark beat him on a straight up for 27 yards. "They were in a zone," said Simms. Huh? Why does everybody keep apologizing for this guy?

Good quote about the Patriots' Wes Welker from a scout I talked to. "They found another Troy Brown. He's what Brown gave them eight years ago." Welker might be the best receiver I ever saw adjusting to hot reads. The really good ones have to be well enough timed up with the QB so they know exactly where to be, and then they have to be prepared to make the awkward catch, since the pass will be thrown under duress. Welker not only does that, but he can also put a move on a defender to make him miss, as he's making the tough grab. He saved their ass against the Cowboys. Sure, Brady was terrific but Welker was my MVP of the game.

How could the Dolphins have let him go? When they drafted Ted Ginn in the first round, they said they wanted someone who could move the chains and return kicks for them. Hey, they had one already, His name was Wes Welker. Actually Cam Cameron saw him depart twice, once in Miami, once in San Diego.