DOWN...SET... My brain says baseball...but my heart's starting to beat with the kind of thud heard only among the modern clash of gladiators we know as NFL football. Three weeks into the 2003 season, a few observations....
It's hard NOT to root for the Tennessee Titans. I got a call two weeks ago from an old college buddy, a native of Boston now living in New Hampshire. This guy was on my telephone minutes after Adam Vinatieri won Super Bowl XXXVI for the New England Patriots. He loves the Pats. But you know what he had to say? Go Titans! Says Tennessee has the kind of roster that you know and recognize one year to the next (rare since free agency landed in pro football 10 years ago), with players who hit the gridiron minus the baggage of off-the-field turmoil or on-the-field histrionics. Steve McNair, Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Frank Wycheck, Derrick Mason. Even their head coach, Jeff Fisher, has retained an air of generalship as the franchise has moved among four(!) homes since 1996. You might even say they play football the way it should be played. We aim to hit you harder than you hit us, and if we don t, we ll hit you next time . . . even harder. And hey, they've got the coolest uniforms this side of Cincinnati. (Don't laugh. The Bengals may not win, but they're stylin'.)
Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison are going to make us forget Montana-to-Rice. This may come across as sacrilege in some circles, but the Colts duo is statistically off the charts. They entered the league at essentially the same time, Harrison in '96, Manning two years later (Montana played five years before Rice came along.) Harrison s receptions over his first seven years: 64, 73, 59, 115, 102, 109, 143 (a league record). Manning exceeded 4,000 passing yards in four of his first five campaigns. They're to a football telecast what Redford and Newman are to the silver screen. A shame they'll go the Hall of Fame together having played in Indianapolis and, even worse, under a roof.
As the season unfolds, the most compelling storyline appears to be the quarterback situation in St. Louis. Incumbent starter Kurt Warner fumbled six times and suffered a concussion in the Rams' opening-game loss to the New York Giants. Marc Bulger got the nod the following week and led St. Louis to victory over a tough San Francisco team. So last week coach Mike Martz named Bulger the starter for the foreseeable future. And Bulger promptly lost his next start in Seattle.
Don't think Warner will sit quietly. Franchise NFL quarterbacks are hard enough to find, much less those who have twice been named MVP and won a Super bowl. Where might Warner wind up if the Rams have indeed committed to Bulger? The question is more of where he might NOT go (you can scratch Philadelphia, Atlanta, Indianapolis, New England, and Minnesota off the list). Knowing the pass-happy schemes of Bronco coach Mike Shanahan -- and knowing the dramatic inconsistency Jake Plummer has shown throughout his career -- seems like Denver and Warner are a match made in heaven.
It's about time the University of Tennessee football program scrapped its Wide Receiver U designation and replaced it with Tailback U. Jamal Lewis just broke the NFL single-game rushing record with his 295 yard explosion September 14th. Travis Henry is the featured back for a playoff contender in Buffalo. Charlie Garner continues to move sticks for the Raiders (he s one of the best pass-catching tailbacks in the league). When you add the Lions' injured James Stewart to the list, more than 10 percent of NFL teams are handing the ball off to Volunteers.
An early Super Bowl pick: the Miami Dolphins. And an early choice for MVP: Ricky Williams. With a horse like Williams running the ball (he carried 42 times in a win over Buffalo Sunday) and a stout defense led by the likes of Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, and the ageless Junior Seau (the Dolphins have given up an average of 12.7 points over their first three games), Miami has the prime ingredients for teams that play deep into January. Their visit to Nashville November 9th would be worth the four-hour drive.