The NFL

November 06, 2006

Cool Hand

Trent Green's lengthy injury hasn't sunk the Chiefs—thanks to the unflappable performance of backup QB Damon Huard

TERRY SHEA, the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach, didn't like what he was seeing. It was 2 1/2 hours before kickoff against the Seahawks at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, and his starting QB, Damon Huard, was moving like a man who hadn't shaken the strained groin he'd suffered three days earlier in practice. Huard grimaced throughout most of a 20-minute workout that included multiple drop-backs, simulated handoffs and throws from the shotgun. But despite the pain, Huard was in the lineup—and he delivered the best performance of his 10-year career, going 17 for 25 for 312 yards and one touchdown in a 35--28 Chiefs win. "There was no way I wasn't going to be out there," Huard said later.

Thanks to Huard's steady hand, Kansas City is 4--3 and in the hunt in the AFC West despite having lost starting quarterback Trent Green in the season opener. Huard's primary contribution has been to provide stability at football's most important position. "Damon hasn't played like a backup," says Shea. Indeed, Huard has kept his mistakes to a minimum (eight touchdowns, just one interception in 188 attempts) and shown he can make the big throw—none bigger than the 51-yard fourth-quarter completion to wide receiver Eddie Kennison on Sunday that set up running back Larry Johnson's game-winning three-yard touchdown run. Indeed, Huard's performance has eased some of the pressure on Johnson, who after a slow start broke out in the last two games, with 287 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

As is the case with most backup quarterbacks, no one knew what to expect from Huard, who went undrafted out of Washington in 1996 and had just six NFL starts before this season. They know now. "You can see that [Huard] has a lot of savvy," said Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson. "He obviously understands the game because he's been around for a while. He just hasn't gotten the reps."

In the Chiefs' eyes, the best thing about Huard is that he hasn't tried to overcompensate for the leadership they lost when Green sustained a severe concussion in a season-opening loss to Cincinnati. What Huard has learned in a career that has taken him from Miami to New England to Kansas City is that the best backups don't try to do too much. Says Huard, "I understand that my job is to get the ball to our playmakers."

The Chiefs devised a very conservative game plan for Huard's first start, at Denver on Sept. 17. Johnson carried 27 times, and Huard passed for just 133 yards. But he was efficient—17 of 23—in the 9--6 overtime loss, and after that the Chiefs felt comfortable giving him more responsibility. In his last five outings Huard has averaged 29 attempts and 240 yards. "The best thing is that [K.C. coach] Herm [Edwards] hasn't overanalyzed me or overcoached me," Huard says. "He's just told me to go out and have fun."

Thanks to Huard, the Chiefs are less anxious about Green's return. They'd hoped to have him available on Nov. 12 at Miami, but Green says a more realistic date is Kansas City's Nov. 19 meeting with Oakland at Arrowhead. Last week he received clearance to do individual drills, and he's hoping to start full team practices this week.

In the meantime, Huard will try to continue a run that he calls the most enjoyable time of his career. As he walked gingerly out of Arrowhead Stadium late Sunday afternoon, his eyes scanning the parking lot for loved ones, he acknowledged the fate of the backup quarterback—that sooner or later the ride will end. "This job belongs to Trent," Huard said. "I'm just doing the best I can until he comes back to claim it."

RAVENS OFFENSE

Billick to The Rescue

Brian Billick was a busy man during the Ravens' bye week. After assuming play-calling duties following the dismissal of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel on Oct. 17, the Baltimore coach installed a few new wrinkles to the offense. The result: The Ravens had a season high for points in a 35--22 victory at New Orleans and looked like a team that finally knew how to use all of their offensive weapons.

Billick trotted out four-receiver sets. He gave running back Jamal Lewis 31 carries, the most he's had in a game since the 2004 season finale. And he had quarterback Steve McNair passing downfield more often to capitalize on the talents of Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap and wide receivers Derrick Mason and Clarence Moore. Following the game Billick downplayed the impact of his new-look offense—"Today was about the players doing what they needed to do after having been coached properly in practice," he said—but there's no doubt the Ravens were energized by the adjustments.

"It was a good start," said Lewis, who finished with 109 rushing yards. "This was closer to what the offense is capable of doing. Guys were committed and wanted to execute because we knew it was going to be tough on Brian as a play-caller. We wanted to make things work."

A team source says the main problems with Fassel were that he couldn't decide if the Ravens were a run-first or pass-first team and that Billick—who hasn't called Baltimore's plays since 1999, his first season with the team—believed his friend had lost his play-calling touch. The sense around the club was that despite the much-publicized addition of McNair this off-season, the Ravens were slipping back into a familiar mode of relying on their defense to carry them.

Now they have renewed confidence, sitting atop the AFC North at 5--2 with a critical game at home this week against 4--3 Cincinnati. "We can score points with anyone," McNair said. "The key is that we didn't stop ourselves today."

REBOUNDING RAIDERS

Welcome Back, Porter

Jerry Porter appears—finally—to be moving past the turmoil that buried him deep in Oakland coach Art Shell's doghouse. The seven-year veteran wideout dressed and saw his first action of the year in the Raiders' 20--13 win over Pittsburgh, and the hope is that Porter, the team's leading receiver the past two seasons, will be contributing as 2--5 Oakland tries to salvage a season that began with five straight losses.

Porter missed the Raiders' first four games because Shell had put him on the inactive list; the two had been at odds since they feuded in the off-season about Porter's workouts and his criticism of Shell's hiring. Once he came off the inactive list, Porter didn't take long to rile Shell. Before the team's fifth game, the coach suspended Porter for four games for "conduct detrimental to the team"—he reportedly talked back to Shell and refused to leave the practice field when asked. The punishment was reduced to two games after the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association discussed the matter, and Porter and Shell talked last week, apparently settling enough of their differences that Shell allowed the wideout to suit up for Pittsburgh. Porter made only one catch against the Steelers, but his presence could free up fellow wideout Randy Moss for more big plays in single coverage, something Porter's replacement, Alvin Whitted (10 catches, 120 yards in six games), clearly couldn't do.

Porter didn't speak to the media after the Steelers game, but veteran defensive tackle Warren Sapp is glad to have a key weapon back. "Porter wants to be here," Sapp said. "Porter wants to play."

More form Jeffri Chadiha at SI.com/nfl.

Dispatches

Philadelphia's reliance on the big play is backfiring big time. Despite gusty conditions on Sunday against Jacksonville, the Eagles called 43 passes and just 15 runs in a 13--6 loss; Donovan McNabb (right) threw for just 161 yards. "We're looking to see where the next big play is coming from instead of driving the ball down their throats," said running back Brian Westbrook. In their last six games the Eagles have had the ball an average of 25.5 minutes.... Giants doctors say linebacker LaVar Arrington should fully recover from the Achilles tear suffered on Oct. 23. The question is whether he'll ever become the difference maker the Giants were looking for when they signed the three-time Pro Bowler to a free-agent deal this off-season.... As if the 2--5 Browns didn't have enough problems, five players have been diagnosed with staph infections since 2003, most recently injured center LeCharles Bentley.

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PHOTOGARY BOGDON (CHIEFS)PICK-ME-UP As Huard finds his comfort zone, Johnson (27) has begun to find his legs. PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (MCNABB) PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (LEWIS)WORKHORSE The Ravens' new approach includes giving Lewis a bigger rushing load. PHOTOPAUL SAKUMA/AP (PORTER)ALL SMILES With a catch and a win, Porter was pleased to be back in silver and black.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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