Stillers Pre-Camp Outlook
Here�s a position-by-position outlook on the 2000 Stillers, as they embark on training camp:
QB: Kordell Stewart was declared "the incumbent" by coach Bill Cowher. Cowher, of course, didn�t say whether it was the incumbent QB or incumbent WR, where Stewart languished the final 5 games of �99 just so that Cowhead could try to save his job. All cracks aside, Stewart basically has the job in his back pocket, unless he falters badly in preseason and Kent Graham is exceptionally strong. Unlike the past 4 seasons, at least there is SOME competition at QB. Graham is not a Danny Marino, but he is capable of playing solid, smart, steady football. The team still remains ga-ga over Anthony Wright, although he played only sparingly in preseason last year and rarely ever took snaps in practice once the season began. Tee Martin will need to have a strong camp to make the roster. Ideally, Graham will push Stewart, and if Stewart falters in early September, Graham will be inserted immediately.
RB: Bettis is still the starter, but it will be an outrage if newly re-signed Ricky Huntley is not involved more prominently as a NON-3rd down back. If Kevin Gayrpide truly wants to spread the field, as he is wont to claim, then Huntley needs reps on 1st and 2d downs, so that he can be sprung on pass routes against mis-matched LBs. Likewise, Amos Zeroue needs to be given some reps at camp, and see if he can be worked into 3rd down packages, as well as a split backfield of he and Hunt. Unlike the slowpoke tandem of Bettis/Witmann, an occasional Amoz/Huntley tandem would give us some nice speed, quickness, and route-running ability.
FB: Jon Witmann, who had his second consecutive subpar season, is back as Cowher�s "incumbent" at the FB spot. Witmann can�t block, can�t run, and can�t catch, but by golly he�ll be handed the starting job on a silver platter by Coach Cowhead, hell or high water. 3rd-year back Chris Fu has been moved to FB to provide some depth. This is a puzzling move, since Fu, though big, has never played FB in college or the NFL, and has shown a weakness for blocking, as well as being as fragile as a vase from the Ming Dysnasty.
WR: This is a logjam that will be very interesting to watch develop at camp. Plexico Burress was drafted to be the savior of one of the NFL�s sorriest passing offenses. However, as camp begins he�s still a holdout. As long as he misses minimal time, he should assume the starting chores. Troy Edwards should naturally start opposite him. Unlike last year�s starting duo of Ward and Hawkins, this gives the team game-breaking playmaking. Ward, Shaw, Malcolm Johnson, promising rookie Danny Farmer, and Courtney Hawkins will fight for PT behind the starters, and two will likely be cut or traded before camp ends. Ward, who showed promise as a rookie, really faltered badly last year. His worst offense was a blatant inability to go UP and get deep balls or "50�50" balls. If he�s not going to be used in any kind of "slash" role, then there�s not much use in keeping him around. Will Jackwell was placed on PUP as camp began, and with any luck will never, ever be heard from again.
TE: The 19-catch-per-season wonderboy, Mark Breuner, is back as the starter. Yaaawn. Breuner might get a few more grabs this year, especially if Graham gets some PT, but with his slowpoke footspeed and average hands, he�s hardly a threat to keep safeties from crowding the line of scrimmage. Jerame Tuman is back from an injury and could vie for considerable PT if he progresses at camp. Matt Cushing is likely to win the job as a 3rd TE and special teamer.
OL: Without question, the biggest question remain in the OL. Dawson is back, and should be 100% and able to again anchor the line. Faneca, who progressed only mildly in his 2d year, is back at LG. Wayne Candy, who had an ok but unspectacular year at LT, will resume his work there, unless some other OT plays well enough to be moved to LT. The biggest question marks reside on the right side of the line. Rich Tylski, a FA from the Jags, will likely start at RG, with former Stiller Tom Myslinski serving as his chief backup. Right tackle, which was such a boil on the ass of this offense last season, has a couple greenhorns fighting for prime playing time. 2-year man Kris Ferris, who got hurt on the 1st day of camp last year and is essentially a rookie, will fight with rookie 2d rounder Marvel Smith. Chris "The Upright Alligator" Conrad, who last season looked as pitiful as 1-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, is also around. With any bit of smarts, he�ll be among the 1st to be released. Ditto for Larry Tharpe. Shar Pourdanesh, who played SUPERBLY when finally getting PT in week 15 last year, will hopefully start the 1st regular season game, and then gradually give way to Smitty or Ferris.
K: Kris Brown, one of the very few bright spots in �99, will be back as the kicker. Hopefully, he has added a few yards to his somewhat shallow kickoffs.
DL: This, like the O-line, is a group in transition. Gone is the supposedly irreplaceable Fat Joel Steed, who graced us by retiring. Also gone is the best defensive lineman from last year�s squad, O. Roye. Holan Harrison, who spent most of the past 2 seasons in the tub, was not invited back. Kimo von Oelhoffen and Chris Sullivan were signed as FAs to bring some veteran experience to this unit. Keevin Henry will likely start at 1 DE, with Sullie at the other. Rookie Kendrick Clancy could garner some PT with a strong camp. Also, 2nd year man Aaron Smith, who did little as a rookie, must come on or face the prospect of visiting the unemployment office. Speaking of which, 3rd year man Jeremy Staat, one of the major busts of the �98 draft, needs to put up or get out. Staat foolishly was used at NT last year, and then spent more time on his back than a Las Vegas prostitute. Ideally, Kimo will start at NT, with Henry and Sullie at DE�s. Ernie Brown, an NFL Europe product, could also fight for backup playing time. Mike Vrabel, who has flip-flopped between OLB and DE, could gain work as a passrushing end, assuming he�s not sitting in the hot tub most of camp.
LB: This group, once a team strength, struggled mightily last year. Leading the way in subpar play was none other than team captain and former Pro Bowler Levon Kirkland, who ballooned to hippo-sized proportions and flopped about many a stadium floor grasping at ballcarriers feet. Assisting in the stench was LOLB Jason Gildon, who appears ready to be handed the starting job on a platter, with absolutely ZERO competition, for the 5th consecutive year. This is apparently an NFL record. Carla Emmons is finally gone at ROLB, paving the way for 2nd year stalwart Joey Porter to FINALLY get the playing time he so rightfully deserved LAST season. Porter will give this unit an immense boost, displaying FAR more pass rushing skills and quickness than Emmons ever dreamed of. Earl "Hit Man" Holmes had strong �99 season, leading the team in tackles despite continually being removed in passing downs. Holmes is one of the few who did not roll over and quit as the �99 season dragged on. Backing up at LB are Chad Kelsay, rookie Clark Haggans, and hard-nosed John Fiala.
DB: The backfield was a spotty section of the �99 defense, and will need to step up their work considerably. Chad Scott and DeWayne Washington return as the starting CBs. Scott, coming back from major knee surgery, was tentative, soft, and inconsistent, but that often occurs in a guy�s 1st year back from knee surgery. Hopefully he is now fully recovered and confident. Washington had some bumps but overall played as well as can be expected. Hard-hitting Lee Flowers returns as the SS. Flowers had a solid season but was beaten deep a few times too many for a veteran safety. The FS job will be a fight between promising 2nd-year man Scott Shields and veteran FA Brent Alexander. Shields was too inconsistent last year in both his tackling and his coverage. The hope here, is that a full year under his belt will enable Shields to come to camp ready to win the starting job, with Alex serving as chief backup. DeShea Townsend will serve as a primary CB backup and nickel back, while Lance Brown will try to make the team as a primary backup and dime defender. Rookie CB Hank Poteat could fight for nickel PT at CB with a strong camp.
P: Josh Miller, who had a surprisingly good �99 season, returns as the punter. With Josh, who is such a weirdo and a wacko, I�m still a bit leery of his ability to boot consistently, but preaseason should give us a good idea where he stands this year.
Keys to Look For as You Watch the Preseason Games:
1. Offensive Tackle : The keys to playing tackle are footwork, and arm EXTENSION. Clumsy footwork is terrible for an OT. Furthermore, arm extension is the critical element to keep a pass rusher at bay. For whatever reason, Christina Conrad loved to keep his arms in tight as his side, thus allowing him about 10 inches of arm extension, which is the same as an alligator. A solid tackle will get nearly a yard of extension out of his arms, thus warding off the passrusher. Watch Ferris and Smitty as they vie for the RT job. Related to this, is if Bill Cowhead will quickly stick with a starting unit, or if, as he has done for about 4 years in a row, Cowhead will play fiddle-faddle and cause the offensive line to operate in a state of chaos for the ENTIRE preseason.
2. Kordell Stewart: I wrote about this LAST summer, and nothing changed from Ninety EIGHT. The things we need to see from Stewart:
a. Ability to pass while ON the run. Stewart passes on rollouts, ONLY while firmly planted. He does not possess the polish or confidence to throw ON the run. Every NFL team has realized this the past TWO seasons and therefore they sell out to stop Stewart from running. Stewart needs to stop acting like Larry Czonka when he scrambles or rolls out, and start passing while he is running. After all, there HAS to be receivers WIDE OPEN.
b. Ability to look off and avoid telegraphing, which is something that has plagued The Western Union Man for YEARS.
c. Better footwork on drops. His footwork has ALWAYS been sloppy and half-assed, which has hampered his accuracy.
3. The Kevin Gaypride Offense: Gaypride supposedly wants to spread the field, but then does so with slowpokes like Bettis (split out as a WR), Witmann (ditto), Lyons (ditto) and Breuner (ditto). If you see Jon Witmann split out as a WR in preseason, then you know that NOTHING has changed. Also, look at the passing game and see if any passes are thrown over 18 yards downfield.
4. The Nose Tackle job. Kimo will get a long look at starting there, and rookie Clancy will also get considerable time in preseason to show his stuff. Either of these men should be infinitely better than Jeremy Faat.
5. Special Teams: Let us hope that Henry Hank Poteat can boost one of the sorriest return units in the entire NFL. Fortunately, Will Jackwell is on the PUP list, so we won�t have to endure another season watching him tip-toe around like a Scandinavian ballet dancer.
I put no stock whatsoever on preseason wins and losses. What I do put stock in, is seeing if the team�s subunits gel, and if the schemes look adequate, and if the skill players actually display skill, etc. This should be a most interesting training camp, especially with Field Goal Bill facing the looming prospect of getting fired if he has another miserable season.
The Still Mill