The Pro Bowl picks include some sweet surprises and, as usual, a
Every year about this time, we mock the Pro Bowl teams because
of the glaring omissions. The problem: Adding someone means
dropping someone else. Unlike in past years, little of that is
needed for the Feb. 9 game. Except for scattered gaffes, the
players, coaches and fans--each group counts for one third of
the vote--did a good job of sprinkling in the new (Browns
linebacker Jamir Miller, Bears center Olin Kreutz and
39-year-old 49ers guard Ray Brown) with the old (Jets running
back Curtis Martin, Cowboys guard Larry Allen and Rams corner
Aeneas Williams). A few choices were truly inspired, but we also
have a bone or two to pick.
Before Cleveland's Dec. 30 game at Tennessee, Titans running
back Eddie George told Miller, "We voted for you to go to the
Pro Bowl. Go over to Hawaii and represent." Miller, the AFC
coleader in sacks (he had 13 going into the last week of the
regular season), split his time at outside linebacker and
defensive end because of injuries to Cleveland's ends,
diminishing his pass-rush numbers. The selection was
particularly sweet for the 28-year-old Miller, who has bounced
back from an NFL drug suspension early in his career with the
Cardinals to become a force. "I came into the league at 20, and
if you give anyone $3 million at 20 and say, 'You're on your
own,' he's going to screw up some," Miller says. "This selection
makes me feel like there's some justice."
Chris Samuels knows he could have been passed over in favor of
the Redskins' other tackle, Jon Jansen, but he's grateful to be
one of eight second-year players to be named. "Working against
Bruce Smith every day in practice has been huge," Samuels says.
"It means anything a good defensive end shows me in a game, I've
seen 1,000 times already."
You could argue that outside linebacker Warrick Holdman and free
safety Mike Brown are as valuable to the Bears' defense as Pro
Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is. "The public sees one
person [Urlacher] on our defense," says Holdman, "but the scouts
know we're making plays." Holdman, who is equally adept at
stuffing the run and dropping into coverage, and Urlacher have
been one-two on the Bears in tackles all season. Brown has won
two games in overtime with interception returns for scores.
Holdman could have replaced the Giants' Jesse Armstead, and
though the Eagles' Brian Dawkins was a worthy choice, it's hard
to overlook Brown.
Going into the final week, the Patriots' Troy Brown was fourth
in the AFC in receptions (95) and third in punt-return average
(12.7 yards), and he's been New England's most dangerous weapon.
Still, Brown couldn't break the grip that the Raiders' Tim
Brown, the Colts' Marvin Harrison, the Jaguars' Jimmy Smith and
the Broncos' Rod Smith have on the AFC receiver slots. "Those
guys all deserve it," Troy Brown says. "Too bad they don't have
a category for 'football player.'"
Patriots Coach Grows on the Job
There is no better example of a coach who has improved the
second time around than the Patriots' Bill Belichick. In his
first head-coaching term, a five-year stint with the Browns, he
had my-way-or-the-highway tendencies that alienated players and
led to an ugly divorce with Browns owner Art Modell in 1995.
Belichick isn't exactly a welcome wagon host now, but he has
learned when--and how hard--to fight city hall. "I now accept
the things I can't control," says Belichick, whose Patriots are
in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. "I've
figured out that when they put your name on the door that says
HEAD COACH, a lot of people, not just players, look to you for
direction, and you'd better be ready to give it."
Belichick's most valuable contribution this year might not be
his handling of the ongoing legal battle with wideout Terry
Glenn (who filed a complaint against the team over his four-game
suspension that has resulted in Belichick attending late-night
meetings after games and being pulled out of game-planning
sessions to give depositions) or his selection of neophyte Tom
Brady over Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. It might be the six or
so hours a week that Belichick spends in quarterbacks meetings
and the extra time he spends working with the passers in
practice. When quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died on Aug. 6,
two days after suffering a heart attack, Belichick decided he
would split Rehbein's responsibilities with offensive
coordinator Charlie Weis. Belichick takes pride in the fact that
Brady, Bledsoe and Damon Huard all can run the first team
competently in practice. "I learn something in this job every
day, every week, every year," Belichick says. "I'd better be a
better coach than I was 10 years ago."
My Two Cents
Mariucci Worth The Money
1. All those rumors about Steve Mariucci's unhappiness with the
front office won't go away--nor will the colleges trying to hire
him--until the 49ers give their coach a contract extension
befitting one of the best in the game.
2. No on-the-bubble quarterback raised his stock more in 2001
than the Cardinals' Jake Plummer, whose decision-making and
accuracy are light years ahead of where they were a year ago.
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the football Beat
With the Rams' Kurt Warner, the most productive NFL
quarterback ever through his first three seasons as a starter
SI: Finesse team.
Warner: The Rams. (Laughs.) We're unconventional. We throw
first. We're not going to try to beat your head in. But we are
not soft. We can take a hit.
SI: Huge stats.
Warner: I'm in a special place in time, surrounded by great
talent, with a coach who knows how to take advantage of my
Warner: Part of the job. A way to get to know fans.
Warner: A few weeks ago, coming off the practice field, one of
my Christian brothers reminded me that I had said a curse word.
I wasn't proud of myself for that. I've been working on it since
then. Usually I say, "Gosh darn it."
SI: Giving up.
Warner: Probably the only time I thought about quitting was my
third year at Northern Iowa, sitting on the bench. That was my
most frustrating time in football, because I couldn't get on the
field. I considered transferring but stuck it out.
SI: Amsterdam Admirals.
Warner: A platform to get to where I wanted to be. I really got
to know the Lord there, because of all the temptations from the
devil in Amsterdam. Drugs, women, promiscuity everywhere you go.
The devil tried to get me to fall, but I gave my life completely
to the Lord.
SI: Football epitaph.
Warner: A winner. Used his football platform to work for Jesus.
Head-coaching openings versus a depleted pool of worthy
The league is lucky there won't be the typical turnover on the
sidelines this off-season, because there aren't a lot of
top-notch candidates. A total of 26 head-coaching vacancies were
filled over the past three years, but there should be no more
than four or five this time. The top candidates: defensive
coordinators Lovie Smith (Rams), Ted Cottrell (Jets), Marvin
Lewis (Ravens) and Jim Johnson (Eagles); Steelers offensive
coordinator Mike Mularkey; and LSU coach Nick Saban, who had his
contract enriched recently but is nonetheless coveted by several
general managers because of his pro experience and expectations
that he could quickly turn around a loser.
Jan. 9, 1965: The Jets sign their second bonus-baby
quarterback--in one week
After five nonwinning seasons, first as the Titans and then as
the Jets, the franchise took two mind-boggling steps in a span
of seven days. First New York signed Alabama quarterback Joe
Namath the day after the Crimson Tide lost to Texas in the
Orange Bowl. Then, worried about Namath's suspect knees, the
Jets struck a deal with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback John
Huarte of Notre Dame. Estimated cost: $400,000 for Namath,
$200,000 for Huarte. Huarte never played a snap for the Jets.
Instead, he was traded to the Boston Patriots during training
camp, and he was out of the NFL by the end of the 1972 season
following uneventful stops with the Eagles, Chiefs and Bears.
Namath? "I see in this young man the same qualities that are
found in Johnny Unitas," Jets coach Weeb Ewbank said on the day
of the signing.