Thursday, December 23, 2004

NFC Not Holding Up Its End Of The Parity

By IRA KAUFMAN ikaufman@tampatrib.com
The NFL suddenly has a vested interest in the final stragglers joining its playoff party.

The doomsday playoff scenario talked about in hushed tones at league meetings is likely to become a reality by Jan. 2, when one of the most bizarre regular seasons in the league's 85-year history concludes.

A widening disparity between the conferences has culminated in a madcap scramble for the NFC's final postseason berths - and the likelihood at least one playoff participant will enter with a losing record.

``The NFC playoff picture belongs on Comedy Central instead of ESPN,'' said former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, now an NFL analyst. ``The NFC is not dead ... it's just not deep.''

No team with a losing record has reached the NFL playoffs in a non-strike season. Five 8-8 clubs have made it, and in 1982 two 4-5 teams advanced to the postseason while playing a strike-shortened schedule.

The NFC is so beaten down this season, a club below .500 could win the West.

Seattle (7-7) closes with home games against Arizona and Atlanta, and the Seahawks showed little pulse at the Meadowlands on Sunday in a 37-14 loss to the Jets.

The 6-8 Rams host the Eagles and Jets, who are a combined 23-5.

Even the 5-9 Cardinals, who close at home against the Bucs, could conceivably win the wicked West.

``When we went to eight divisions of four, the fear was you could have a down division or two, where you might end up with an 8-8 or 7-9 champion,'' said Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co- chairman of the league's competition committee.

Solid AFC teams Baltimore and Jacksonville could be left out of the playoffs at 9-7, even as a 7-9 Carolina club prepares for the wild-card round.

With six interconference games remaining in the final two weekends, the AFC holds a commanding 39-19 advantage. The NFC hasn't been on the plus side of .500 since 1995, when the Cowboys were capping a run of three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span.

``There's no simple explanation,'' Bucs general manager Bruce Allen said of the AFC's recent dominance. ``The most important thing to remember is our system works. There has never been a debate about who the world champs are in a given season ... and there won't be a debate this year. This could just be a quirk.''

Statistical evidence supports the disparity.

AFC teams crowd the top of the board in three significant categories - rushing attempts, rushing defense and turnover differential.

Except for Atlanta, which benefits from the unique mobility of quarterback Michael Vick, the nine teams with the most rushing attempts hail from the AFC.

``While the AFC's dominance seems to be at its peak right now, history tells us it won't last forever,'' said Giants running back Tiki Barber. ``The whole AFC-NFC debate is cyclical.''

Barber's point can't be dismissed.

From 1985-97, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls. Now the pendulum has swung back to the AFC, with both a vengeance and a question mark.

``I have come to the conclusion that I have absolutely no explanation for it,'' said McKay, whose Falcons went 3-1 vs. AFC opponents. ``It's a story, and it's real, but I can't explain it. I have seen it go the other way, too.''

McKay acknowledged there has been some sentiment among NFL executives to choose the 12 playoff teams based strictly on record, rather than select the top six from each conference.

``There wasn't much support for the idea,'' he said. ``Conference boundaries are part of our tradition, and this is a league that ties itself to tradition. We're not looking to make a first down 11 yards.''

For this season, at least, the NFC has some explaining to do. Only four of its 16 teams boast a winning record, compared to nine AFC clubs.

Leave it to the NFL's resident philosopher, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, to provide some perspective.

``You put us in the AFC,'' Rice said of 5-9 Tampa Bay, ``and we would have been gone a long time ago.''

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Clayton, Galloway Benefit As Griese's Targets

By KATHERINE SMITH, ksmith@tampatrib.com
Bucs quarterback Brian Griese completed passes to nine different receivers Sunday. Actually, 10 if you include the deflected pass he caught himself.

Even Tim Brown got in on the action. Brown snapped a five-game streak without a reception with two catches.

But it was rookie Michael Clayton and veteran Joey Galloway who benefited the most from Griese's most productive day as a Buc (36 of 50 for 392 yards and three touchdowns) in Tampa Bay's 31-24 loss.

Clayton caught a career- high nine passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. Galloway had five receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns.

Former Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell, watching from the Chargers sideline with an injured hamstring, said he admired the job the newest members of the Bucs receiving corps are doing.

``Michael is having the same numbers that I had last year. He stepped in and played big,'' said McCardell, who led the Bucs with 84 receptions for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns last year. ``Joey has come in, it's his first year of the offense and [he] is becoming more familiar with it.

``It's a wide receiver offense. It's a wide receiver's dream.''

It's a quarterback's dream to have receivers making big plays. Of Clayton's game-high nine receptions, seven were for first downs.

Galloway picked up two first downs and added two touchdowns to his Tampa Bay total (three). He scored his first Bucs touchdown last week against Atlanta.

``Joey made some great plays today,'' Griese said. ``On the first touchdown, it was just pure speed, speed over the top. I laid it out there for him and let him go get it. ... He did a great job. He's got quick feet.''

Those feet came out from underneath Galloway late in the fourth quarter. He slipped during a punt return and was helped off the field suffering from cramps.

``That hurt us,'' Coach Jon Gruden said. ``We ran out of gas a little bit. We had some penalties on early down run calls which put us behind in the down and distance, and Galloway's absence hurt us down the stretch.''

Clayton, who leads the Bucs and NFL rookies with 70 receptions, is 12 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season. He credits Griese for his success.

``You have to love the guy,'' Clayton said. ``If it weren't for him, I probably wouldn't have made it this far. He really sets the tone in the huddle and for a guy like me, I can feed off that.

``When he looks at you in your eye, it's confidence saying I'm coming to you, get open. It gives you a little bit more spunk running your routes.''

Clayton had to build up trust with Griese and is taking advantage of that dependability.

``He knows I'll catch,'' he said. ``I catch them in practice. I don't think I've dropped one catchable ball this season. He knows. He's pretty comfortable throwing the ball to me.''

Galloway also enjoys the benefits of Griese's confidence in the receivers.

``It's fun to play football when [Brian's] spreading the ball around,'' Galloway said. ``You know whenever a play is called, you better do your job because there's a chance he could find you.''

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ten-Spot

from NFL.com
Michael Pittman is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ leading scorer in 2004, with 60 points, and with Jay Taylor replacing Martin Gramatica (54 points) at kicker for the final five games, it appears certain that Pittman will take the lead to the end of the season.

How rare is that? The last non-kicker to lead the Buccaneers in scoring was Reggie Cobb in 1992, another season in which the Bucs switched kickers midstream. The only other such occurrence came in 1976, the first season for the Tampa Bay franchise. That year, WR Morris Owens scored six of the team’s 15 touchdowns and edged out kicker/punter Dave Green, 36 points to 35.

Moreover, Pittman wouldn’t have seemed a likely to join Cobb and Owens, given that he had exactly one rushing touchdown in his first two Buccaneer seasons, and just three scores overall. In addition, Pittman missed the first three games of the season on a suspension and was expected to share time in the backfield with free agent import Charlie Garner. In that role, he might have been used most extensively as a receiver.

But Pittman’s nose for the end zone has been about the most consistent thing in the Bucs’ rollercoaster season. Since returning in Week Four, he has scored 10 touchdowns in nine games, including at least one in six of the last seven contests. Suddenly he is only the fourth player in team history to hit double digits in TDs in a single season, joining James Wilder, Mike Alstott and Errict Rhett.

While Pittman took some heat in an otherwise excellent 2002 season for rarely putting the ball in the end zone, the main difference between that year and this one is the number of his opportunities. Pittman has gotten the call repeatedly in the red zone, and he has delivered.

“[Pittman has been used] especially inside the plus-five, goal-line area, where years past he hasn’t been utilized in that area,” said Head Coach Jon Gruden. “I think 10 touchdowns in nine games is pretty significant and hopefully he can find pay dirt a few more times.”

The team record for single season touchdowns is 13, by Wilder in 1984. Alstott in 2001 and Rhett in 1995 each had 11, and Alstott and Wilder had 10-TD campaigns in 1997 and 1995, respectively. Pittman, who played his high school ball in San Diego, could challenge the top spots as quickly as this weekend, though the Chargers possess the league’s second-best rush defense.

Because Garner got knocked out for the year just before Pittman came back and Alstott also missed a chunk of the season with a knee injury, Pittman has become the workhorse again. He has averaged 19 carries per game over the last six contests; compare that to his 13 carries per game in 2002 and his 12 per game in 2001.

All that has somewhat diminished his touches in the passing game, but he remains a very serious threat in that regard, too, with 292 yards and three scores on 27 catches. The Buccaneers still love to find ways to isolate him with a mismatched player in the secondary. Overall, Pittman has 954 combined yards from scrimmage, which puts him 12th in the NFC. He would obviously be much closer to the top had he not missed the first three games of the year.

“He’s got close to 1,000 all-purpose yardage in 10 weeks, nine games, so that puts him on the upper tier in terms of all halfbacks in football,” said Gruden. “He’s having a great year and we’re going to need him down the stretch, obviously.”

Pittman has averaged 106 combined yards per game this season, which does indeed put him in the conference’s upper echelon. The Giants’ Tiki Barber, having his best season, leads the way with 140 yards per game, but the second-place man, Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, is well behind Barber at 116 . Philadelphia’s Brian Westbrook is next at 115.5 and Clinton Portis follows at 107. Pittman is fifth in the NFC with his mark, ahead of such notables as Ahman Green, Marshall Faulk, Thomas Jones, Warrick Dunn and Deuce McAllister.

With 662 rushing yards and four games to play, Pittman would have to average 84.5 yards per game to reach the 1,000-yard mark, a recognizable goal for any back. He might not get there, and the truth is, his team doesn’t really care. As long as he continues to produce in the manner he has been all season – particularly in terms of finding the end zone – the Buccaneers will be extremely happy.