Bennett to Arizona would make senseBy Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com
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The slow start of the Minnesota Vikings, and of Michael Bennett, has rekindled the offseason rumors that the tailback-needy Arizona Cardinals might be interested in acquiring the fifth-year veteran before the Oct. 18 trade deadline.

Michael Bennett
Running Back
Minnesota Vikings
Profile


2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Rush Yds TD Rec Yds TD
9 35 0 4 20 0



Indeed, officials from the two clubs spoke this week, in very, very preliminary terms, about a potential Bennett deal. And it certainly makes sense for a number of reasons: The former first-round pick (2001) hasn't played very well and didn't exactly endear himself to coach Mike Tice with two fumbles last week. There are some Minnesota staffers who would prefer to go with younger tailbacks such as Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason and even Joe Echemandu. And Cardinals coach Dennis Green is the guy who originally drafted the speedy Bennett.

But, because Bennett is in the final year of his original rookie deal (base salary: $1.446 million) and eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, the Cards aren't going to trade for him without a contract extension. And according to agent Pat Dye Jr., there have been no discussions yet about a contract add-on.

So for now at least, or until someone draws Dye into the loop, the trade discussions are little more than idle talk. A lot more smoke than fire, which isn't to say things won't heat up. Pro scouts to whom we speak agree that Bennett still is a talented runner, but his career has come undone because of injuries. Nearly half of his career output came in 2002, when he rushed for 1,296 yards, earning a Pro Bowl berth in only his second season. Since then, though, a series of injuries has limited the former Wisconsin star to 169 carries and 758 yards.

• More from Minnesota: Interesting move by the ever-calculating Tice this week in whispering to some of the Twin Cities media -- if you ever wonder about leaks in the Vikings' ship, folks, look no further than to the guy on the sideline with the pencil stuck behind his ear -- that the offensive play calls will be filtered through his headset. That means Tice will have veto power over the plays called by embattled offensive coordinator Steve Loney.

Hey, as the head coach, that's his right. But it also means that, if the Minnesota offense suddenly registers a pulse, you-know-who is going to grab credit for changing Loney's selections. And if the unit continues to sputter, Tice likely will whisper that he really didn't want to step on Loney's toes, and didn't alter much of the offense. It's a no-lose situation for the head coach. Then again, if Minnesota continues to be a no-win team, it really won't matter much longer. That vote of confidence that new owner Zygi Wilf gave Tice this week isn't worth the newsprint on which it was published.

As we noted Monday, the one thing that could save Tice -- well, beyond a winning streak, of course -- is that his staff doesn't have a lot of potential choices as interim head coach. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell probably is the only assistant with enough experience, and with enough respect from the players to step in. And we've written enough features in the past two years about how interim coaches rarely reverse a team's fortunes to understand that Wilf might stick with Tice until the end of the season.

• Even more from Minnesota: Completing the Vikings' trifecta, one Minnesota veteran told us this week that, while the running-game problems are the sum of a lot of dysfunctional components right now, the biggest shortcoming is that the offensive line simply isn't very strong without Pro Bowl center Matt Birk anchoring the unit.

Birk's replacement, journeyman Cory Withrow, is being rag-dolled by bigger defensive tackles and it's only a matter of time until he is replaced by Melvin Fowler, acquired from Cleveland in a Labor Day trade. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is a superior pass-blocker, but his great feet don't necessarily translate into the kind of functional strength needed to knock defenders off the line of scrimmage. Right tackle Mike Rosenthal also is a solid technician, but not very strong. And rookie right guard Marcus Johnson, a second-round draft pick, at times plays like, well, a rookie.

The Vikings had an opportunity to add a more powerful inside blocker this week when they brought in veteran free agent Ross Tucker, who has played center and guard and has 24 starts on his résumé, for a Tuesday workout. The Vikings didn't sign Tucker, though, in part because there was internal disagreement about how much he could help them.

• Shakeup in Houston: From what we hear, deposed offensive coordinator Chris Palmer could have stuck with the Houston Texans through the end of the year, likely as the quarterbacks coach. But who could blame Palmer for not wanting to hang around after coach Dom Capers stripped him of the coordinator role earlier this week? It would have been an uneasy existence tutoring regressive quarterback David Carr, who helped grease the skids for Palmer's exit, after all.

It's also notable that the offense that was so miserable over the first two games was tinkered with during the offseason by Joe Pendry, the line coach who has been elevated to coordinator. Guess the changes that were made didn't pan out too well. The team's most obvious deficiency, ironically, is the line, the unit Pendry coached. It's tough to defend the results Palmer got from Carr, and from the offense in general, and we don't want to come off as an apologist. But the problems with the offense run a lot deeper than one man, and it will be interesting now to see whether Carr steps up his game, after acknowledging he didn't feel very comfortable with the design in the first two outings. Palmer eventually will land on his feet. In fact, he's already heard from one AFC team about a possible position down the road.

It was good to see, in the wake of Palmer's dismissal, that Capers took some accountability for the Texans' defensive shortcomings. The team benched two starters, linebacker Jason Babin and cornerback Philip Buchanon, two guys in whom Houston officials essentially invested five draft choices. They dealt three picks in the 2004 draft to Tennessee to move up for Babin and then sent the Oakland Raiders two selections this year for Buchanon. General manager Charley Casserly and owner Bob McNair expect more from this team and, given their efforts, they should. Now the heat is on Capers to deliver some victories.

One final ironic note on the Palmer departure: His wife, Donna, recently made the long drive back to Houston after an extended vacation in the New England area. Her traveling companion on the trip: Karen Capers, the wife of the head coach.

• Thumbs up and thumbs down: Thumbs up to commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the league for last Monday night's telethon. No matter the argument about having the New Orleans Saints play their first "home" game in Giants Stadium, the telethon was well done, very tasteful (yeah, even Tony Danza), and raised a lot of money for people who desperately need it. The event once again demonstrated the commissioner's often overlooked social conscience.

Then again, thumbs down to The Commish for his backhanded swipe at the city of San Antonio, which he labeled a "small market" when reporters asked if the town might be a suitable permanent home for the displaced Saints. San Antonio has opened its arms to the homeless Saints and exercised great sensitivity in trying not to look like some NFL-hungry city attempting to steal a franchise.

Someone needs to remind Tagliabue that, a little more than a decade ago, the league awarded expansion franchises to Jacksonville and Carolina, when league-tested cities St. Louis and Baltimore were without teams. The Jags have had so many problems selling tickets that they had to cover nearly 10,000 seats at Alltel Stadium this season to help reach sellout status. Anyone who was at the Panthers' opener two weeks ago couldn't help but wonder where all the fans went at halftime. There were yawning stretches of empty teal seats for the second half. It's as if everyone went to the concessions stands and never returned.

• Back on the defensive: Don't be too surprised to see wide receiver Troy Brown taking snaps again at cornerback as he did for New England a year ago. The Patriots coaches have apprised the versatile Brown, who recorded three interceptions last year while playing cornerback, to be prepared to play some on defense if the injury situation gets any worse.
The team felt it had sufficiently bolstered itself at cornerback this spring, and wouldn't suffer from the body-count problems of 2004, by trading for Duane Starks, signing Chad Scott as a free agent and using a third-round draft choice on Ellis Hobbs. But five of the 10 defensive backs on the Patriots' roster -- corners Tyrone Poole, Randall Gay, Starks and Scott, and rookie safety James Sanders -- are on the injury report for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. So the buttressing efforts aside, New England is again thin in the secondary, although none of the injuries is considered serious and several of the walking wounded intend to play at Heinz Field.

In a pinch, of course, free safety Eugene Wilson can move outside to cornerback, the position he played in college. Or Brown, who was recruited by the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent this spring and told he would be exclusively the No. 3 wide receiver, could return to his two-way responsibilities.

• Stress management: In the wake of the stroke recently suffered by Seattle defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, and the locker-room collapse of Jacksonville offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, there are some league assistants talking among themselves about the need to better assess the stress involved with their jobs. And it might become more than just private dialogue. Some coaches to whom we spoke this week might raise the issue with Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, and a gentleman with the ability to broaden the awareness of his constituents.

The recent salary spiral notwithstanding, NFL coaches work excruciatingly long hours and their lifestyles during the season leave a lot to be desired. Rhodes is one of the most high-strung individuals you'll ever meet in any walk of life. But his stroke might have served as a wake-up call that league coaches in general need to take better care of themselves.

• Line issues in Jacksonville: It won't happen this week, but it's really just a matter of time (and not much time) until the Jacksonville Jaguars have their third different starting left offensive tackle for this season. Second-round draft pick Khalif Barnes, who some scouts felt was a first-rounder until a couple of weeks before the lottery, will be active for Sunday's game against the New York Jets and is expected to get some snaps.

The former University of Washington standout wasn't even active for the first two games of the season. But the two veterans in front of him, Mike Pearson and Ephraim Salaam, have struggled mightily and the poor play at the line's most critical position has to be rectified.

It's obvious that Pearson, who started the opener, hasn't recovered from the catastrophic knee injury (three torn ligaments) that he suffered in the fourth game last season. Salaam has played mostly right tackle in his career and doesn't have the feet to succeed on the left side. He was abused last Sunday by Indianapolis right defensive end Dwight Freeney. So likely within a week or two, Barnes will get his shot to see whether he can keep quarterback Byron Leftwich perpendicular. The only reason Barnes isn't starting Sunday is because the staff figures that Jets rush-end John Abraham might skewer him.

William Joseph
Defensive Tackle
New York Giants
Profile


2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
4 2 2 0 1 0


• Patience is a virtue: Sometimes patience with a first-round draft choice who isn't immediately productive at the NFL level eventually pays off. And other times, it simply means a team has delayed too long in admitting its mistake on a first-round bust, and must eat its crow overcooked. For the New York Giants and third-year defensive tackle William Joseph, the club's first pick in the 2003 lottery, it is beginning to look like patience was indeed virtuous.

The former University of Miami standout, the 25th overall selection in '03, suddenly looks like the interior force he was projected to be by Giants scouts. In his first two seasons, Joseph came pretty close at times to being labeled with the dread "bust" moniker. He started in just four of 29 games, registered only 31 tackles and three sacks, and appeared to be a reach by a team that desperately needed line help in the '03 draft. But Joseph had a solid training camp, one in which coaches agreed he was much-improved and far more motivated, and has performed very nicely in the first two games of the year. He has four tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery, not statistics that suggest he will become a dominant interior defender, but solid numbers. As with most tackles, the statistics don't indicate how well Joseph has played so far.

No doubt about it, the free-agent addition of former Redskins middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (20 tackles in two outings) was the key defensive move made by New York general manager Ernie Accorsi in the offseason. But the play of Joseph also has helped secure the interior and, maybe now Accorsi won't have to listen to the skeptics who panned the selection of Joseph in 2003.

• Backup plan: He told us so and now all the doubters, us included, might be forced to concede that Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis made a solid move in choosing tailback Chris Perry in the first round of the 2004 draft. The former University of Michigan standout was a non-factor as a rookie, appearing in only two games and logging just two carries because of a spate of injuries. A pair of offseason surgeries to repair sports hernias limited Perry at the outset of camp, providing considerable fodder for the skeptics, but when we visited the Bengals this summer, Lewis was still adamant that the youngster was "terrific."

Through two games, Perry certainly has lived up to that assessment, and looks to be a pretty nifty complement to starting tailback Rudi Johnson. Coming off the bench, Perry has carried 14 times for 58 yards and has nine receptions for 70 yards, mostly as a nickel tailback. Last week, he had an 84-yard touchdown reception negated by a penalty.

Johnson remains a workhorse, on pace for 384 carries, which would break the franchise record he established last year, when he logged 361 attempts. But Perry has demonstrated through two games that, when Johnson requires a breather, the Cincinnati offense doesn't have to go on a ventilator. He certainly looks like the explosive-type playmaker Lewis felt he was getting when he chose him in the first round.

Without taking anything away from the inside power dimension that Johnson provides, the coaches want to get the ball into Perry's hands and let him make plays. That balancing act will be the challenge for coordinator Bob Bratkowski and his offensive staff. No true No. 2 tailback (we're not counting Pittsburgh's Duce Staley, who lost his starting job because of injury) recorded more touches from scrimmage in 2004 than Chester Taylor of Baltimore, who had 190. Perry is currently on pace for 184 touches and, if he gets that many, he is going to make Lewis look very good, indeed.

• Marshall plan: On the subject of complementary backs, St. Louis Rams star Marshall Faulk ought to be complimented on the grace that he has demonstrated in handling his No. 2 role in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. The seven-time Pro Bowl performer has only six carries and nine touches in the Rams' first two games. At the current rate, Faulk, 32, would finish the season with only 72 touches from scrimmage. This for a guy who had averaged 317.6 touches per season and 21.6 per game before this year, who five times had more than 340 touches in a campaign, and whose previous season low was 245.

We're betting when Rams coach Mike Martz told his veteran back that Steven Jackson was going to be the starter this year, and Faulk agreed that should be the case, he still anticipated a more ambitious workload than the one he has experienced through the first couple weeks. We're betting, as well, that Martz figured he could get Faulk on the field more, too.

But part of the equation is that young wide receivers Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald have developed so well as the Nos. 3 and 4 players at the position, with both capable of big plays, that there is little opportunity to use Faulk flexed out or in the slot. Faulk is a wonderful receiver, a back with better hands than many wideouts, and a guy who averaged 83.4 receptions in one five-season (1998-2002) stretch. As accomplished a pass-catcher as he is, though, Faulk isn't about to bump Curtis or McDonald off the field anytime soon on third downs.

Corey Simon
Defensive Tackle
Indianapolis Colts
Profile


2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
7 2 5 1 0 0


• Money player: He's maybe 40 pounds over his listed playing weight of 293, and Corey Simon might spend the first half of the season simply getting into some semblance of shape, but the veteran defensive tackle still looks like an excellent pickup by the Indianapolis Colts. As we noted in the "Morning After" column on Monday, the former Philadelphia Eagles star has made an immediate impact in the Colts' locker room. He is a guy to whom the other players, veterans and youngsters alike, seem to gravitate.

While Simon has played just 55 snaps in two games, has just six tackles and is yet to register a sack, he is starting to make a difference on the field. It's not just happenstance that the Colts' two other tackles, Larry Tripplett and Montae Reagor, have five sacks between them. Or that six of Indianapolis' nine sacks for the year have come when Simon was on the field. "He just pushes people around, eats up blockers, and makes life easier for everyone else," said end Dwight Freeney, arguably the NFL's most dominant pass rusher now.

Also, as noted on Monday, forget the talk that Simon is playing for his future. Contrary to some reports, the $8 million option bonus the Colts owe Simon next spring is fully guaranteed. It's guaranteed for skill and injury and there is also a non-exercise penalty of $8 million. So if Simon is injured, the Colts still owe him the money. If he is released, he still gets paid. And if the Colts don't exercise the option, he collects then, too. The upshot is that Simon will be around in 2006, meaning he'll earn a whopping $16.045 million in his first two seasons with the Colts, and $20 million if he sticks around through 2007. After that, his base salaries jump to $5 million each in 2008 and 2009, so he'll either have reworked his deal or could be gone by then.

• Running to nowhere: Rumor has it that, during the Baltimore Ravens' bye week, starting wide receiver Clarence Moore will be demoted, possibly in favor of first-round pick Mark Clayton. If so, the move is probably a good one, but it's also like sending the fictional Little Dutch Boy to New Orleans to see if he can plug the leaky levees there.

Brian Billick brought in Jim Fassel and Rick Neuheisel to try to fix the offense problems he apparently couldn't correct himself, and the results to date have been disastrous. Never mind that the Ravens lost starting quarterback Kyle Boller to a toe injury that will probably sideline him until late October. A more glaring problem is that the Ravens have panicked in each of their two losses and abandoned their onetime run-first mind-set.

In the opener, they trailed Indianapolis only 3-0, but came out in the second half throwing on six straight downs and all but ignoring tailback Jamal Lewis, their offensive centerpiece. Last week, down 10-0 to Tennessee at the half, Baltimore threw on its first nine snaps, and 14 of its first 15 plays, in the third quarter. Most scouts from other teams who have seen Lewis in person contend he still isn't recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Still, he's the horse that the Ravens have to ride. And if he isn't 100 percent, backup Chester Taylor is a pretty nice alternative. The offensive line, led by veteran assistant Chris Foerster, who is in his first season with the franchise, hasn't played very well, either.

Lewis ran for 40 yards on seven carries in the first quarter of the opener against the Colts. That included bursts of nine and 25 yards. In the seven quarters since then, Lewis has carried 19 times for just 17 yards. His longest run has been for 13 yards. Ten of his 19 carries have been for minus yardage and 15 have netted one yard or less. How about this un-Ravens-like offensive split: 80 pass plays and just 34 runs in two games.

• Building depth: One of the most impressive elements about the Carolina Panthers when we visited with them in training camp in late July was the improved depth that general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox worked so hard on creating in the offseason. Just a couple weeks into the season, that depth, especially at a few key positions, had already proved invaluable.

A good example is at safety, where without any fanfare the Panthers added veterans Idrees Bashir and Marlon McCree, with 90 regular-season starts between them. With first-round pick Thomas Davis struggling at strong safety, McCree has provided a big lift at the position. And if free safety Mike Minter can't play Sunday, although his physical situation has improved during the week, Bashir will start.

The Panthers signed former Falcons starter Chris Draft because he has lined up at all three linebacker spots, and he might have to start on the weakside Sunday if Will Witherspoon can't go. Former starter Ricky Manning Jr., who has been playing as the nickel corner, could start if Ken Lucas is still laid up. It wasn't as if the Panthers paid a fortune to get Bashir, McCree and Draft. In fact, all are minimum-type players, but all might pay handsome dividends.

• Replacing Darius: A year ago, no one would have dared suggest this: The Jacksonville Jaguars' defense might actually miss starting strong safety Donovin Darius more against the pass than the run. Jags coaches are confident that fourth-year veteran Deke Cooper, who will replace Darius (torn anterior cruciate ligament) the rest of the year and has just 10 previous starts on his résumé, will remain stout in run defense. In fact, last summer, there were some Jags staffers who felt Cooper might be pushing Darius for the starting job, because of his big-hitting style.

Playing down "in the box," Cooper, a special teams standout, figures to deliver some jaw-rattling tackles. He isn't nearly as good as Darius, though, in coverage. Then again, until 2004, most scouts felt Darius was a coverage liability as well. That was before Darius suddenly emerged as a solid cover player, and authored a career-best five interceptions. Darius gave the Jaguars a secondary player who could alter games with the big takeaway, something he hadn't done in the past.

• Out with the old: ESPN.com colleague John Clayton will write on Saturday about the "disappearing" fullback in the NFL. A timely topic, given that there were just 36 starts (of a possible 64) by fullbacks in the first two weeks of the season. In the situations where teams did not have a fullback in the starting lineup, they used either an H-back or third wide receiver.

One fullback who really is disappearing, and who has been suddenly relegated now to splitting playing time is Fred Beasley of San Francisco, a onetime Pro Bowl performer who isn't quite as admired by the Mike Nolan staff as he was by previous coaches. The new coaches have quickly fallen in love with journeyman Chris Hetherington, who is with his fifth different franchise in nine seasons, and has largely been a special teams contributor during his NFL tenure. Hetherington was claimed on waivers at the outset of the season and, given Beasley's recently shrinking workload, could soon move into the starting lineup.

An eighth-year veteran who recently earned his master's degree, has expanded his interests beyond the field and is beginning to plan for his football afterlife, Beasley missed a lot of the offseason program that Nolan and his staff set up, and that didn't sit well with some members of the new staff. He's making $1.5 million this year, the final season of his contract, and it isn't likely the 49ers will bring him back for '06 at anything close to that kind of salary.

No criticism of the Nolan staff, but this is how it is sometimes when a regime change is made. The new guys don't owe any loyalty to the players they inherited and sometimes, as in the case of both Hetherington and Beasley, view players through a different prism.

• Veteran RBs looking for work: Add the rehabilitated Charlie Garner, who is nearly 100 percent recovered from the knee injury that limited him to three appearances in '04 and basically got him pink-slipped by Tampa Bay last month, to the list of 30-something tailbacks still looking for work instead of filing for retirement. Garner's representatives have been phoning around, attempting to generate some interest, and at least got a call-back from the Raiders, a team that never will be taken to court for age discrimination. But no one has promised Garner a workout yet, not even Oakland, for which he once starred, and he appears to be facing the same sobering reality as the rest of the unemployed tailbacks in his age group.

Nobody seems to want any of these guys. Eddie George (age: 32), Tyrone Wheatley (33), Dorsey Levens (35) and Garrison Hearst (34) all still want to play.

Like those players, Garner, 33, should not expect the phone to ring anytime soon. The Indianapolis Colts, because of injuries to backup tailbacks Dominic Rhodes (shoulder) and James Mungro (knee), had to sign two running backs this week. They didn't even consider any of the old guys. Instead they added rookie Anthony Davis, a seventh-round pick who had been in camp with them but was waived, and Kory Chapman, who spent most of the 2004 season on the New England practice squad.

Eli Manning
Quarterback
New York Giants
Profile


2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
47 23 3 0 2 76.3


• Hostile territory: During his stellar SEC career, Eli Manning played in front of some pretty nasty crowds. But even Manning conceded this week he has probably never seen, or certainly heard, anything like the reception he figures to get when the Giants travel to San Diego for the week's Sunday prime time matchup. The Chargers fans, at least the ones who show up, aren't apt to forget that Manning refused to play for the team after it made him the top overall choice in the 2004 draft. That precipitated, of course, the landmark deal in which the Chargers dealt Manning to the Giants for fellow first-round quarterback Philip Rivers.

In the first two games of his first year as the Giants' full-time starter, Manning has done a pretty nice job managing the offense. But the famous Manning Family Nerves certainly will be tested against the Chargers' defense and in front of a crowd that will attempt to verbally blitz him into submission. You think, knowing the marketing geniuses in the NFL, that it's just happenstance the Giants-Chargers encounter is a prime time affair?

"I don't know," Manning said, "if I've ever played in a place where the team had a reason to dislike me." Well said but, in truth, not quite accurate. The Chargers players, who went 12-4 with Drew Brees playing quarterback, aren't taking Manning's snub nearly as seriously as are their fans.

• Receiving a helping hand: Maybe it was just the normal due diligence that every franchise performs, bringing in free-agent players for workouts, updating their files on veteran players who might be part of the "ready" list in event of an injury. Or perhaps, in quietly auditioning free agent Jerome Pathon on Friday, the Atlanta Falcons really are finally ready to concede that the wide receiver position needs to be upgraded.

The rhetoric from Atlanta officials is that the young wide-receiver corps continues to make progress, that the West Coast-spinoff offense installed in 2004 takes time for everyone to assimilate, and that it's only a matter of time until first-round receivers such as Michael Jenkins and Roddy White begin to make plays on a consistent basis. But deeds speak louder than words in the NFL, and the Atlanta wideouts have just 12 catches for 160 yards and one touchdown in two outings. There are 10 individual wide receivers in the league with more than Atlanta's aggregate catches and 16 with more receiving yards.

Released by Seattle just before the start of the season, Pathon has subsequently worked out for Green Bay, Indianapolis and Kansas City and, somewhat surprisingly, remains unsigned. The seven-year veteran has played in 93 games and has 259 catches for 3,332 yards and 15 touchdowns. Pathon, 29, has never quite lived up to the second-round status he enjoyed when the Colts chose him in the 1998 draft, but he might provide Atlanta a steady, veteran presence and a receiver who knows how to get open.

• QB shuffling: When the Baltimore Ravens released Derek Anderson on Tuesday, they hoped to sneak the rookie quarterback, whose potential they like, through waivers and then re-sign him to the practice squad. But the Cleveland Browns, where former Ravens personnel chief Phil Savage is now the general manager, scuttled the plan by claiming Anderson. The Ravens then were forced to sign former Pittsburgh third-stringer Brian St. Pierre to the practice squad.

To make room for Anderson, the Browns released journeyman Doug Johnson. That leaves the Browns with a pair of backups who have never thrown a regular-season pass (third-round pick Charlie Frye and Anderson) behind Trent Dilfer.

• Early returns: It's only two games, but some people are beginning to wonder if the Falcons overpaid new middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, their most significant free-agent acquisition in the offseason. The former Ravens starter hasn't done a lot yet and Atlanta gave him $8 million in bonuses as part of a six-year, $26.25 million deal. Oddly, that came after the Falcons pursued Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, but couldn't get him when general manager Rich McKay decided he didn't want to pay more than $2.5 million per year for a player who's only on the field for first and second down. Notably, Hartwell doesn't play in the "sub" defenses, either. Sounds suspiciously like one of those deals in which Falcons owner Arthur Blank wanted a player a little more than some of his football people did.

• Stat of the week: A victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday would give Tom Brady of the Patriots 50 regular-season wins in only 65 starts and he would become the second-fastest quarterback in NFL history to achieve that milestone. Ken Stabler earned his 50th win in just his 62nd start. There were six quarterbacks chosen in the 2000 draft ahead of Brady, a sixth-rounder and the 199th player off the board: Chad Pennington (New York Jets, first round, No. 18 overall), Gio Carmazzi (San Francisco, third round, No. 65), Chris Redman (Baltimore, third round, No. 75), Tee Martin (Pittsburgh, fifth round, No. 163), Marc Bulger (New Orleans, sixth round, No. 168) and Spergon Wynn (Cleveland, sixth round, No. 183). Those six have combined for just 51 career victories.

• Punts: Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just 32 times in two games. But he is averaging 14.8 yards per attempt and 20.5 yards per completion. ... If defensive end Brady Smith (quadriceps) can't play on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will flip left end Patrick Kerney to the right side for the second straight week, and play rookie Chauncey Davis as the starter at left end. Kerney was dominated last Sunday when he played the right side and faced Seattle star left offensive tackle Walter Jones. ... Out-of-work wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, released by Kansas City two weeks ago, is nearly finished rehabilitating from arthroscopic knee surgery and should soon be able to work out for any interested teams. ... New Orleans coaches are still kicking themselves for calling an ill-fated reverse on the opening kickoff of Sunday's loss to the New York Giants in the Saints' so-called "home opener." The staff spent the offseason talking up the need for simplicity and then failed to practice what it preached. When the Saints fumbled the kickoff, one coach noted in retrospect, it "sucked all the air" out of the team's emotional balloon. The Saints then lost ace return specialist Michael Lewis later in the game. ... Chicago Bears second-year corner Nathan Vasher, who some scouts felt was emerging as one of the best nickel defenders in the NFL, has played extremely well in starting the first two games in place of the still-recovering Jerry Azumah. ... Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers, who missed most of the past two seasons after suffering a fractured collarbone each year, is struggling to retain his starting job. ... Defensive end John Abraham, the Jets' "franchise" player, has been terrific in the first two games of the season. The team, though, hasn't opened talks yet on a potential long-term contract. ... A few Indianapolis offensive players feel the team misses tight end Marcus Pollard, who signed with Detroit as a free agent in the offseason. ... Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell had more passing yards in the final four minutes of Monday's stunning comeback at Dallas (119) than he had in seven of his previous 11 appearances. ... Philadelphia kicker David Akers has missed five of his last eight field-goal attempts. He had missed only five in his previous 44 tries. ... San Francisco rookie quarterback Alex Smith, who figures to soon get his first regular-season start, threw one pass last Sunday in relief of Tim Rattay and it was incomplete. Still, the first overall choice in the 2005 draft has a higher passer rating (39.6) than does Rattay (21.3). ... Will Allen has retained his starting job at left cornerback for the Giants, but might be holding on only because second-rounder Corey Webster is battling a quadriceps injury. ... Kerry Collins is 3-12 as the Oakland Raiders' starter. ... It's not his preference, but Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher will continue the time-sharing plan with first-rounder Pacman Jones and Tony Beckham at right cornerback for at least another week or two. ... Steelers tailback Duce Staley, who has been inactive for the first two games, could see his first action of the season on Sunday against the Patriots. ... Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, he of the $60 million contract, continues to play behind Warrick Holdman, and continues to chafe about his backup status.

• The last word: "Tuesday is no longer [like] a ghost house around here." -- Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis on how many more players have been at the team's complex on Tuesdays, the normal off-day, with the Bengals' 2-0 start.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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phew... a long one