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tiggerpolice 06-10-2005 05:53 PM

Tuning up
In the ever-more-impatient NFL, huddles are being dominated by quarterbacks barely old enough to remember the Y2K scare. This year, 49ers rookie Alex Smith and Bills sophomore J.P. Losman will join a group of precocious passers that includes the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, the Giants' Eli Manning, the Ravens' Kyle Boller and the Bengals' Carson Palmer.

But down in the dusty Southwest, a couple of old-school coaches are partying like it's 1999. That was the season Kurt Warner led the Rams to a Super Bowl championship and Drew Bledsoe threw for just shy of 4,000 yards for the Patriots.

Since then, each quarterback has ridden his share of dramatic ups and downs.

Ignoring downward trends, the Cowboys signed Bledsoe, 33, to be their starter. The Cardinals signed Warner, who will turn 34 on June 22, to compete for their job, then coach Dennis Green anointed him the starter in late May.

Now we get to find out if either of these guys still can throw and thrive. Both were displaced recently by younger athletes -- Warner by Manning in New York and Bledsoe by Losman in Buffalo.

In appraising the veterans' chances for 2005, you have to start by looking at their supporting casts. Both quarterbacks are as mobile as cacti, which means they won't be creating a lot of their own opportunities.

"Both have a tendency to hold the ball," an AFC pro personnel director says. "If they can get a line up front to protect them, they have the throwing ability to be dangerous."

Both lines were upgraded for 2005. The Cardinals signed Oliver Ross to play right tackle, and the Cowboys landed free-agent guard Marco Rivera. And both quarterbacks should have ample targets. Arizona has a talented young trio of receivers in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, and Dallas has a more seasoned combination in Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn. The Cowboys have an edge in the running game.

Then there are the quarterbacks themselves. Bledsoe was mediocre in Buffalo after a big 2002 debut. Warner led the Giants to a winning record through nine games last year but was sacked 24 times in his last four starts. They seem to be at similar points in their careers.

But another pro personnel director sees the two quarterbacks in different lights. He believes Bledsoe has several productive years left. "You can feel Drew," he says. "You know he can still throw the ball. You know he won't fumble it away. You have a better sense of his direction, and he is in a better environment."

In contrast, the personnel director just can't shake the memory of the game that altered Warner's career. In the Rams' 2003 season opener, he suffered a concussion, fumbled six times and more or less came unglued. Warner hasn't been the same quarterback since.

"In first grade, you probably knew some kid who peed in his clothes," the personnel man observes. "When you see him in high school, it might be years later, but you still say, 'He peed in his clothes.' In this league, once they sense what you are, they go after you."

The green flag won't come down on the 2005 season for three months, but based on the offseason moves, we can tell you which teams are getting in gear -- and which are just clogging up traffic.


Bears: They stood pat on defense but revamped their offense -- especially if you include the return of injured quarterback Rex Grossman. Performance should go way up at wide receiver (Muhsin Muhammad replaces David Terrell) and tackle (Fred Miller instead of Qasim Mitchell), and rookie running back Cedric Benson gives Grossman another weapon. Grade: A

Chiefs: They rode their late-season momentum (4-1 in the last five games) into the offseason, boosting their defense by signing veteran free agents (linebacker Kendrell Bell and safety Sammy Knight), trading for cornerback Patrick Surtain and defensive end Carlos Hall and drafting linebacker Derrick Johnson. The losses were minimal, even though wide receiver Johnnie Morton was released. Grade: A

Raiders: After years of claiming they were younger than people contended, the Raiders truly have traded in their motorized carts in 2005. Seven of their nine new starters likely will get their jobs through promotions. Granted, many hardly are upgrades, such as Nnamdi Asomugha for Phillip Buchanon at cornerback and Travian Smith for Napoleon Harris at inside linebacker. That hardly matters because Oakland's two major offeason acquisitions, wideout Randy Moss and running back LaMont Jordan, were whoppers. Grade: A-

Lions: If Detroit can keep its receivers healthy, it might finally be able to turn a good offseason grade into victories. Tops on the list of improvements were the signings of left guard Rick DeMulling (replaces David Loverne) and strong safety Kenoy Kennedy (for Bracy Walker). At tight end, replacing Stephen Alexander with Marcus Pollard probably is a wash. Grade: A-

Vikings: It seems absurd that a team could unload the most dominant big-play threat in the game and wind up looking astute. The Vikings didn't necessarily come out ahead in the Randy Moss trade; it was what they did afterward that made the difference. Minnesota is another team that focused on defense, adding four veteran starters: cornerback Fred Smoot, nose tackle Pat Williams, middle linebacker Sam Cowart and oldie-but-goodie free safety Darren Sharper. Grade: A-


Browns: They might be the most altered team in the league, with new coach Romeo Crennel having displaced more than half of last year's starters. On defense, the secondary now includes cornerback Gary Baxter and safeties Sean Jones and Brian Russell. On offense, Trent Dilfer takes over for human voodoo dolls Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb. The biggest upgrades? Rookie Braylon Edwards for Antonio Bryant at wide receiver and free-agent pickup Joe Andruzzi for Paul Zukauskas at left guard. Grade: B+

Cardinals: Most of the new starters -- such as tight end Eric Edwards and middle linebacker Gerald Hayes -- are uninspiring, but the Cardinals now have an interesting mix of crafty new vets (quarterback Kurt Warner, free safety Robert Griffith) and rookies (running back J.J. Arrington, cornerback Antrel Rolle). It's the young guys who ultimately could make more noise. Still, signing Oliver Ross to play right tackle is the move that drives up the Cardinals' grade. Grade: B+

Chargers: Get this: The Chargers have become the NFL's most stable franchise. Two rookies, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and lineman Luis Castillo, could take over as starters on defense -- and that's all the changes. Grade: B

Cowboys: Drew Bledsoe seems to be an aging risk at quarterback -- until you remember he's replacing Vinny Testaverde, 41. Bledsoe will have a better line than Testaverde did, thanks to the signing of Marco Rivera. Cornerback Anthony Henry and defensive tackle Jason Ferguson fill two primary needs, but the quickness of linebacker Dexter Coakley, a free-agent defector, will be missed. Grade: B

Falcons: One of 2004's surprise teams, the Falcons are showing more incremental improvement at left guard (Matt Lehr in place of Roberto Garza) and, especially, middle linebacker, where free-agent pickup Ed Hartwell is more physical than Chris Draft. Keion Carpenter is a suitable replacement for Cory Hall at strong safety. Grade: B

Giants: Kurt Warner was better than Eli Manning last season, but handing the ball to Manning in Year 2 seems like the right thing to do. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress will be a bigger target for him than Ike Hilliard, and tackle Kareem McKenzie will solidify the offensive line. On defense, the acquisition of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce balances the loss of defensive tackle Norman Hand. Grade: B

Seahawks: The Seahawks did a good job of plugging holes. Defensive end Bryce Fisher and cornerback Andre Dyson were brought through the free-agent "in" door as Chike Okeafor and Ken Lucas were leaving through the "out." The Seahawks also pounced on outside linebacker Jamie Sharper as a replacement for Chad Brown. Grade: B


49ers: Alex Smith frequently will look like an overmatched rookie at quarterback, but he will be a slight improvement over Tim Rattay. Another rookie, David Baas, might have a harder time replacing Kyle Kosier at right guard. But the 49ers look better at offensive tackle (Jonas Jennings for Scott Gragg) and defensive end (Marques Douglas for John Engelberger). Grade: B-

Panthers: Health concerns have affected the Panthers more than economic issues. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeShaun Foster appear healthy again, but outside linebacker Mark Fields' lymphoma has recurred. The loss of wideout Muhsin Muhammad is painful but is eased somewhat by the additions of guard Mike Wahle and cornerback Ken Lucas. Grade: B-

Saints: The team made solid moves by bringing in free agents Jermane Mayberry (at right guard) and Dwight Smith (free safety), but shouldn't the league's worst defense have received more attention? Grade: B-

Bengals: The only changes are on defense. Bryan Robinson is a step up at defensive tackle, but will rookie linebacker David Pollack be more effective than Kevin Hardy? Grade: C+

Jaguars: Coach Jack Del Rio must like his young team because the Jaguars stayed pretty quiet. Free-agent defensive end Reggie Hayward should add some energy. Grade: C+

Redskins: The big news was swapping possession receivers, Laveranues Coles for Santana Moss, but we suspect they are actually the same person. Most of the improvement will come from the returns of injury casualties right tackle Jon Jansen and defensive end Phillip Daniels. But we're skeptical that middle linebacker Lemar Marshall and cornerback Walt Harris will adequately replace Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot, both free-agent losses. Grade: C+


Broncos: The way coach Mike Shanahan plugs in running backs, you can expect Tatum Bell to match former Bronco Reuben Droughns yard for yard. Bringing back swift outside linebacker Ian Gold after lending him to the Buccaneers for a year is a boon, as is welcoming back a healthy Trevor Pryce at defensive end. Strong safety Kenoy Kennedy was a physical presence in the secondary -- his replacement is Nick Ferguson -- and brittle Courtney Brown will be hard-pressed to outdo Reggie Hayward at end. Grade: C

Patriots: Giving Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli a mediocre grade is like telling God he's doing an OK job with the oceans. Subtract the injury-related shifts (tackle Tom Ashworth and corner Tyrone Poole return; linebacker Tedi Bruschi might be out), and there isn't much to go on. Replacing Joe Andruzzi at left guard will be a challenge for rookie Logan Mankins. Grade: C

Rams: The Rams should have eight new starters, including five who are new to the roster. The changes don't appear to be sweeping, though. Free-agent additions Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley are expected to fill two of the linebacker spots, and coach Mike Martz is hoping rookie Alex Barron can jump in at right tackle. The team will miss end Bryce Fisher. Looks like 8-8 again, eh? Grade: C

Texans: The Texans went with youth at linebacker, letting Jay Foreman and Jamie Sharper go in favor of Antwan Peek and free-agent pickup Morlon Greenwood. Grade: C

Buccaneers: It's hard to picture a turnaround in Tampa when the big free-agent purchase was tight end Anthony Becht and a former undrafted free agent, Anthony Davis, is slated to start at left guard. The biggest loss could be right guard Cosey Coleman, who left the job to Jeb Terry. Grade: C-

Dolphins: The worst team in the AFC is in line for plenty of change, but you have to wonder what the impact will be. Rookie running back Ronnie Brown is sure to provide some spark, but quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Gus Frerotte look a lot like Jay Fiedler. And Miami might have regressed in the secondary, with cornerback Reggie Howard and strong safety Tebucky Jones replacing Patrick Surtain and Sammy Knight. Grade: C-

Eagles: Warning: This team might suffer significant loss of viscosity if Reggie Brown has to start in place of Terrell Owens at wide receiver. Grade: C-

Jets: The Jets got younger and smaller -- and maybe worse -- at nose tackle (Lance Legree in, Jason Ferguson out) and right tackle (Adrian Jones for Kareem McKenzie). Grade: C-

Ravens: The Ravens worked hard to find a new model for each machine that drove off the lot, but they might have come up short. Yes, Derrick Mason is more productive than Travis Taylor or Kevin Johnson at receiver, but Keydrick Vincent is a notch below Bennie Anderson at right guard, and Samari Rolle is a bigger gamble at cornerback than Gary Baxter. Grade: C-


Bills: Two of the Bills' best linemen, Jonas Jennings and Pat Williams, departed, and unproven J.P. Losman is the new quarterback. Grade: D+

Colts: Is this any way to catch the Patriots? It's hard to see improvement at any position, unless rookie corner Marlin Jackson turns out to be a fast learner. The team might still re-sign middle linebacker Rob Morris, but offensive tackle Rick DeMulling, tight end Marcus Pollard and free safety Idrees Bashir are gone. Grade: D+

Packers: Brett Favre decided to limp back for another 3,000 yards, and Ahman Green still is there. But starting guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle were allowed to escape, and the players expected to compete for their spots (Adrian Klemm, Grey Ruegamer and Matt O'Dwyer) are unheralded. Safety Earl Little should compensate for the loss of Darren Sharper. Grade: D+

Steelers: Pitsburgh brought in only one free agent, wideout Cedrick Wilson -- and he can't imitate Plaxico Burress. Max Starks is no substitute for Oliver Ross at right tackle. Grade: D

Titans: You hate to kick a Titan when he's down, but the salary cap finally flattened these guys. Several of the players who made Tennessee a contender from 1999 to 2003 were dismissed to create cap room. And though coach Jeff Fisher typically breeds overachievers, wide receiver Tyrone Calico is no Derrick Mason, offensive tackle Jacob Bell is no Fred Miller and cornerback Andre Woolfolk is no Andre Dyson. Grade: F

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