Inside The NFL

October 07, 2001

Back In Stride
The Ravens showed they haven't lost their swagger with a
convincing win in Denver

Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens were not in grave danger
last week. Yes, they already knew that their offense would be
walking a tightrope all season. Yes, they realized quarterback
Elvis Grbac was no Johnny Unitas. Yes, they missed running back
Jamal Lewis in a huge way. Still, a loss to the perennially lowly
Bengals the previous Sunday, which most teams would have found
dispiriting, was swatted away like a gnat. "We were over it,"
Baltimore defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said last Friday, "by
the time we got out of the shower after the game."

Like most champions, the Ravens have an aura about them. You can
feel it when you are around the players, and you can feel it when
you are around their coach, Brian Billick, a man who has taken
self-confidence to a new level. Last Saturday night, on the eve
of a gut-check game in Denver against the Broncos--the AFC team
that figures to be Baltimore's biggest roadblock to a return trip
to the Super Bowl--Billick sat in his hotel suite, pondering what
he knew was coming: spread formations, with four-receiver and
empty-backfield sets, designed to confound the Ravens'
impenetrable rushing defense. His lack of concern was evident.
"Chicago did it against us in Week 1 and couldn't piss a drop,"
said Billick. "Cincinnati beat us because we turned it over six
times; when the Bengals spread the field, they got nothing done.
Really, what has anyone seen the last two games that leads
someone to believe we're going downhill?"

How about a sputtering offense? In Denver, though, that offense
did just enough to assuage the fears that come with a 1-1 start.
A moribund running game stopped and started its way to 112 yards.
Grbac backed Billick's faith in him with two perfectly thrown
touchdown passes. The defense was state of the art, as usual,
holding Denver's vaunted offense to 61 rushing yards and forcing
Brian Griese, the NFL's highest-rated passer coming into the
game, into his first two interceptions of the year. The result
was a 20-13 victory, the kind of win that led Billick to slap
tight end Shannon Sharpe on the shoulder pads as they entered the
locker room and say, "It ain't the Super Bowl, but it ain't bad."

The Ravens have that aura again. The mind-set is, We expect good
things. We might lose a game or two, but that's life in the NFL.
We won't lose when the games get very big or when the season's on
the line. Erik Williams is familiar with that mentality. He is
Baltimore's new right tackle, a 33-year-old free agent who, after
a three-ring career in Dallas, was brought in when Leon Searcy
suffered a torn left triceps during training camp. "I see a
championship swagger on this team that I saw in Dallas," Williams
said after Sunday's win. "Michael Irvin led it in Dallas. Ray
Lewis leads it here. You need that swagger, that confidence, when
every team is gunning for you."

Baltimore will struggle to score, as it did last season when it
went five games in October without a touchdown. Terry Allen, the
33-year-old running back who was brought in to replace Jamal
Lewis, showed spark against the Broncos (19 carries, 65 yards),
but the Ravens will have to grind out a meager existence on the
ground while relying on Grbac. On the first snap against Denver,
Grbac put Baltimore in a hole, throwing an interception that
tackle Chester McGlockton returned to the Ravens' three-yard
line. Griese capitalized with a scoring pass to tight end Duane
Carswell.

However, in the last 21 minutes, Grbac came through. Trailing
13-6 and facing a third-and-six from the Denver 20 midway through
the third quarter, the Ravens lined up three receivers to the
right and wideout Qadry Ismail to the left, isolated against
cornerback Denard Walker. As Ismail battled Walker down the left
sideline, Grbac thought he saw a sliver of an opening over
Ismail's left shoulder. "Beautiful touch pass," Ismail said. "The
kind where the quarterback could throw it hard and nobody would
catch it, or he could put it up there so the receiver could make
the play." Ismail grabbed the scoring pass to tie the game at
13-13.

Six minutes into the fourth quarter, on a third down from the
Denver three, Grbac dropped back under a heavy rush. Wideout
Travis Taylor was supposed to run a fade toward the right corner
of the end zone. "But he looks back at me, like he's got the
corner beat," said Grbac, still excited about the play 45 minutes
after the game, "and I throw it right then. Sort of like two guys
playing basketball on the playground. He looks at me, I know he
wants the ball, I get it to him. Pretty easy."

It's called chemistry. It's what the Baltimore offense began to
build as the Denver summer turned to fall. If that bonding
continues along a hard road--the Ravens host the desperate Titans
on Sunday, then travel to Green Bay the following week--we could
be looking at a two-time Super Bowl champion.

Washington's Woes
It's Only Going To Get Worse

The question in Washington should not be about how many wins the
Redskins will scrape together in this disastrous season. Rather,
it should be about how they have put themselves in the position
to waste 21% of their salary cap next year on players who won't
be on the roster. The salaries of Jeff George, Darrell Green,
Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith (assuming, at 39, he's cut before
next fall) could count $15.3 million against the projected $72.5
million cap next year. This franchise will be down for years.

There's also the matter of the present. No team is off to a more
pathetic start. The Redskins (0-3) have been outscored 112-16.
The latest was a 45-13 rout in their home opener on Sunday
against the Chiefs, whose offense had struggled in its first two
games. On Sunday, Kansas City piled up 546 yards. Adding to the
humiliation was the fact that the man directing the Chiefs'
offense was former Redskin Trent Green, who completed 21 passes
in 26 attempts for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Green's big
afternoon came four days after the Redskins' surprise release of
George, a strong-armed quarterback who couldn't adjust to the
short passing game that new coach Marty Schottenheimer has
installed.

The Redskins' tackling was atrocious, and their effort may have
been worse. "This game was downright disgusting," said Smith, who
declined to answer when asked if Schottenheimer, after a physical
training camp, had already lost the team. Sanders and former
Redskins wideout Irving Fryar said Schottenheimer's unbending way
was key to their decisions to stay away from football this fall.

"I don't know what the answers are, but I will find out," said
Schottenheimer, who signed a four-year, $10 million deal in the
off-season. "This is as disappointing as I've ever been in my
coaching experience."

Quarterback-in-Waiting
Aikman Ready If Situation Is Right

At the Meadowlands last Friday to prepare for his gig as a Fox
analyst, Troy Aikman took time off during the Giants' practice to
toss passes to the team's wideouts. "If the right situation came
up," Aikman said later, "I would entertain the thought of coming
back."

Aikman, 34, retired last spring after a series of concussions
(he's had at least nine) and back injuries during his 12-year
career with the Cowboys. However, it's been one of those Roberto
Duran kind of retirements. When Aikman announced he was quitting,
everyone close to him knew he still wanted to play--just not in
the hopeless situation he faced with the rebuilding Cowboys.
Since the season began, he hasn't had a solid offer, but that
could change if the starter for a Super Bowl contender gets hurt.
What may hinder Aikman is not his concussion history--he says he
has been cleared to play--but his back. Aikman has a degenerative
joint that gets stiff.

"People ask me if I miss it," Aikman said last Saturday. "I miss
winning. I miss playing for an organization that does things the
right way. I don't miss going 5-11. If I came back, it would have
to be with a club that could compete, with an organization going
in the right direction. That way, I could finish my career on a
positive note."

What are the chances that he will play again? "Probably a long
shot," he says.

My Two Cents
Let's Make a Deal

1. Here are two trades that simply must be made: The Chiefs
should ship a third-round draft choice to the Browns for wideout
Kevin Johnson, and the Ravens should deal a fourth-rounder to the
Panthers for running back Tim Biakabutuka. His performance
against the Redskins notwithstanding, Kansas City quarterback
Trent Green still needs another wide receiver who can separate
from good cornerbacks. The mistake-prone but explosive
Biakabutuka, buried on Carolina's depth chart, would be a better
inside-outside threat for Baltimore than Terry Allen is.

2. Be patient, Bills fans. He blew the call on which quarterback
to keep when he went with Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie, but Gregg
Williams is a well-prepared coach who can get things straightened
out. In two years you'll be thrilled to have him.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Taylor gave the Ravens a lift, catching four balls for 90 yards, including the game-winner. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER COLOR PHOTO: NICK WASS/AP Wideout Michael Westbrook and the Redskins' offense have hit hard times, with only one touchdown in three games.

the football Beat

WORD ASSOCIATION

With Broncos wideout Rod Smith (left), the NFL's leading receiver

SI: Philosophy.

Smith: Every day, in practice or a game, I have to do something
to make the Broncos want me to come back tomorrow. I will have
that mentality for as long as I play. My name's on an NFL locker!
I love coming to work and seeing that.

SI: Best receiver.

Smith: Jerry Rice. No doubt. When I got to the Broncos, my
receivers coach, Mike Heimerdinger, made me a reel of every catch
Jerry had made. I could watch it all day. Every snap, he plays
like the ball's coming to him.

SI: Ed McCaffrey.

Smith: My good friend. We started here as competitors, trying to
win the job opposite Anthony Miller. Over the years I've stolen
so many traits from him. Hard worker. Just saw him the other day.
Hugged him. Told him, "I miss you. I need you. I want you back."
[McCaffrey will miss the rest of the season with a broken left
leg, suffered on Sept. 10.]

SI: Missouri Southern.

Smith: It was in Joplin, Missouri, but to me, being away [from
his hometown of Texarkana, Ark.] for the first time was like
going to Europe. It's where I grew up.

SI: Best asset.

Smith: My mind. I'm a thinker, always a couple of steps ahead.

SI: Ideal day off.

Smith: Golf. Shot a 73 this year. Now, that's a good day.

MATCH GAME

Lions quarterback Ty Detmer versus the Rams' revamped defense--and
his own recent failures

Detmer is a good-natured guy, bright, soft-spoken and optimistic.
But how does he rebound from a seven-interception performance in
his first start as a Lion, on Sept. 23 against the
Browns--especially with a bye week to think about it, and against
a 3-0 Rams team with a reenergized defense? "I'm sure some of it
will be in the back of my mind," he says. What will hurt Detmer
most this week, and for as long as he pilots the Lions, is his
weak downfield arm. It emboldens defenses to jam the line against
a mediocre running game (Detroit averages 69 yards a game on the
ground) and to plug up the short and intermediate routes in the
Lions' West Coast offense. On Monday fans at the Silverdome could
be chanting for the benched Charlie Batch by halftime--if not
sooner.

HISTORY BOOK

Oct. 7, 1945: Packers wideout Don Hutson scores an NFL-record 29
points--in one quarter

Eight games before the end of a transcendent career (he finished
with 488 catches, an NFL record that stood until 1967), Hutson, a
spindly 6'1", 180-pound former college sprint star, had his
finest moment. He caught four touchdown passes from Roy [Tex]
McKay and kicked five extra points in the second quarter of Green
Bay's 57-21 rout of Detroit at Milwaukee's State Fair Park.
Playing on a field encircled by a racetrack, McKay connected with
Hutson on throws of 59, 46, 17 and six yards in a 13-minute span.
During an interview a few years before his death in 1997, Hutson
said that in today's game he believed he would catch about 50
passes a year. "That's all?" he was asked. "Well," he replied, "I
am 74."

Dispatches

The Jaguars' salary-cap woes have caused depth problems that were
painfully obvious during a 23-14 loss to the Browns. Star left
tackle Tony Boselli was inactive with a recurring shoulder
injury, and his replacement, Aaron Koch, hadn't played tackle in
a game since high school. On his first play Koch was beaten by
defensive end Keith McKenzie. Mark Brunell threw an interception
and suffered a concussion during the return....

The three active quarterbacks with the best career-winning
percentages (minimum 10 starts) are Kurt Warner (24-6, .800),
Doug Flutie (33-14, .702) and Jay Fiedler (13-6, .684). Flutie
lasted until the 11th round of the '85 draft; Warner and Fiedler
weren't picked at all....

"People thought we were crazy for picking a cornerback in the
first round this year, with two good ones already," said Miami
coach Dave Wannstedt, speaking last week of adding Jamar
Fletcher to a secondary already boasting Sam Madison and Patrick
Surtain. "Playing Peyton Manning twice, Kurt Warner and Brian
Griese, I'd do it again in a heartbeat."...

After three weeks Bills Pro Bowl wideout Eric Moulds has only
five catches for 63 yards; he's on pace to finish with 27
receptions. This comes after his off-season signing of a $42
million contract. "I don't think words can describe how I feel,"
Moulds said after a 20-3 loss to the Steelers. "It's like I'm
out there running around for nothing."...

Class Act of the Week: Giants owner Wellington Mara bought a
half-page ad in The Kansas City Star, thanking Chiefs fans for
the way they welcomed and cheered the Giants on Sept. 23 in the
wake of the terrorist acts.

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