Wednesday, September 27, 2006

NFL Week 4 ATS: Building on Success

Our first 2006 foray into handicapping the NFL last week yielded good results. We finished 8-5-1, the push being the Indy/Jacksonville game. We got nice winning efforts from the Rams, Jets and Packers on the road; also the Redskins, though their decisive victory at Houston was less a surprise. This week looks particularly tricky, and these early lines from, quite frankly, look out of wack. For example, why would the Chargers be giving 2 points on the road at Baltimore? But ours is not always to reason why. We'll pick against the points being served up.

1. INDIANAPOLIS (-9.5) @ NY JETS The Jets are 2-1 and feeling their oats. The Colts are coming off a solid win over tough Jacksonville. These points tantalize, especially with Jets QB Pennington playing so well. The ballsy pick is New York. Prediction: Colts.

2. SAN DIEGO (-2) @ BALTIMORE Chargers are 2-0 and coming off their bye week. Ravens are 3-0, and return home after a narrow victory at Cleveland. Chargers keep losing defensive players to off-the-field events. Someone thinks L.T. and Philip Rivers can hold their own versus the Ravens' swarming defense. Not me. Prediction: Ravens.

3. MINNESOTA @ BUFFALO (-1.5) Two teams still trying to answer the question, "Exactly how good (or bad) are we?" Buffalo doesn't even get the requisite three points for being at home, which is not a show of faith. Then if they win a squeaker, you might still lose your money. Vikings slugged it out against the Bears last week in a very tough home loss. Maybe they left a little too much mojo on the field. Prediction: Bills.

4. DALLAS (-9.5) @ TENNESSEE Titans glad to be coming home. But to what? It all still looks pretty chaotic for them at 0-3. They'd have to have some extra effort to beat the spread, and if Vince Young actually gets a start, it could be really tough to avoid losing by 10. Unless the kid surprises, if he plays at all. The Cowboys have talent, but they seem to have psychic problems too. This could be a reach, but we're thinking the Titans will step up. Not to win—just to make it closer than they have any reason to expect. Prediction: Titans.

5. SAN FRANCISCO @ KANSAS CITY (-7) I guess if Trent Green were quarterbacking the Chiefs, this one'd be a no-brainer. But Damon Huard is the man. The Niners have found a semblance of an offense, which is good news, and maybe they'll score some against the Chiefs' underachieving D. Alas, the Niners still give up too many points themselves. This one's a toughie, folks. Maybe Larry Johnson has a huge game at home. Prediction: Chiefs.

6. NEW ORLEANS @ CAROLINA (-7.5) The NFC South leaders are in this one. No, we don't mean the Panthers; it's the Saints, strutting their stuff at 3-0, and fresh off the Monday night Superdome extravaganza. This spread is designed to rope in all that fresh New Orleans money, and the way the Panthers were playing in Weeks 1 & 2, it might make for a tasty wager. It still might, since Carolina only nipped the faltering Bucs last week. The Panthers will win, of that there is little doubt. But by how much? Saints come down to earth after short work week. Prediction: Panthers.

7. ARIZONA @ ATLANTA (-7.5) Falcons also have a short work week, and they better hope that Monday night was a blip on the radar screen. Look for that running attack to get back on track versus Cardinals. Falcons also have the defense to get after immobile Kurt Warner. Prediction: Falcons.

8. MIAMI (-4) @ HOUSTON It's the questionable versus the doubtful here. Houston (0-3) desperate for a victory and this is a home opportunity to get one. Dolphins (1-2) coming off lackluster 13-10 home victory against a bad Titans team. Nick Saban's 'Fins need to keep pace in a suddenly more competitive AFC East. Too bad QB Daunte Culpepper isn't really playing that well. This could be a very tough play. Yet the plane ride from Miami to Houston isn't that bad, so no jet-lag factor. If Dolphins leave Houston 1-3, they're in trouble. Prediction: Dolphins.

9. DETROIT @ ST. LOUIS (-6) Well, at least the 0-3 Lions aren't leaving home to go play the Bengals or Ravens. They have a chance to cover this one. The Rams may be 2-1, but they're not dazzling anybody. I say St. Louis takes this about 20-14, which means a push. But maybe they'll kick an extra field goal. Prediction: Rams.

10. NEW ENGLAND @ CINCINNATI (-6) On the surface, this looks like a nail-biter for bettors. If only we had some assurance that the Patriots were as good as that 2-1 record ought to indicate. They beat Buffalo and the Jets, then their offense got stuck in first gear against the Broncos, and in Foxboro no less. Throw another of the 3-0 Bengals into the drunk tank, but also bet on 'em to beat this spread. Prediction: Bengals.

11. JACKSONVILLE (-2.5) @ WASHINGTON Is the Redskins' offense really untracked, or did they only face the Texans last week? They're gonna face the ferocious Jaguars this week, and if the Jags' D gets after lead-footed Mark Brunell the way we know they can, it'll be a different story. Still, Clinton Portis looks pretty healthy again, and there's no question that the 'Skins' defense has the ability to short-circuit the Jags' unpredictable offense. The oddsmakers have done us a favor giving the points to the visitors. Prediction: Redskins.

12. CLEVELAND (-3) @ OAKLAND Here's another visitor getting the points. I guess it makes sense. Theoretically, the Browns (0-3) aren't that bad. On the other hand, the Raiders (0-2) have scored 6 points and given up 55. Plus, they have Andrew Walter starting at quarterback, their OL is in relative shambles and their run offense hasn't done anything yet. Okay, you convinced me. Prediction: Browns.

13. SEATTLE @ CHICAGO (-3.5) Seattle running back Shaun Alexander is probably out of action with a broken bone in his foot. But even if he plays, he might need more than a miracle to grind out big yardage against this eager Bears team. Both teams are 3-0, so this is a marquee game. Fact is, until last week against the Giants, the 'Hawks weren't playing that well. There's no reason why the homefield Bears can't win this game by four points. Prediction: Bears.

14. GREEN BAY @ PHILADELPHIA (-11) Sigh. Brett Favre is putting up great numbers again. Against the Saints and the Lions. Now he brings the Pack (1-2) into Philly (2-1) for a Monday night encounter. His opposite number, Donavan McNabb, looks like a top gun again, and Brian Westbrook is running hard. Plus, the Eagles' receivers are performing well. Eagles' usually vaunted D has yielded 64 points in three games, so they look vulnerable to Favre and his receivers. But wait: the Packers' un-vaunted D has given up 84 points in three games. Eating 11 points and taking the Eagles would be a daring move. But the home team looks hungry. Prediction: Eagles.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

“Do You Know What It Means, to Dismiss New Orleans...?”

The Monday Night Football extravaganza in New Orleans last night was so excessively championed as a big American celebration that I had to stop and remember what exactly was being celebrated.

Ummm... Let’s see... Pardon my cynicism. How many billions of our non-New Orleans-based tax dollars have been injected into that dire, now practically pointless economy? The number is so high that no one can recount it accurately. Billions upon billions. The federal government was handing out credit cards to those people. Remember? And we-all paid for them.

Now, because they’ve spent money on cleaning up the Superdome, we’re all supposed to rejoice that New Orleans is back. But is it? They were pillorying the football Saints’ owner Tom Benson last year, when he dared to (ahem) float the idea that maybe the Saints should move elsewhere, since they’d be hard-pressed to represent a city that virtually ceased to exist, and which will take decades and decades to return to its former, uh, glory. Frankly, I thought Benson had a realistic point, and I’m sure he wasn’t suggesting it to be vindictive. He probably looked around, thought it made no sense for a devastated town of 200,000 to have an NFL franchise, and looked at options. Even Bangor, Maine, probably looked pretty good at that point. But the guilt guys got to him, and the Mother Teat federal government has been spilling its endless supply of money-milk all over New Orleans, because the guilt guys got to them too in spades.

Of course, there’s always the chance that another Katrina might come along. They’ve plugged the dikes (dykes?) in New Orleans but the entire area’s coastal geology is in a chaotic recession. Yep, for several decades the feds, in concert with local authorities, dropped the ball on rejuvenating the shoreline and diverting the Mississippi in creative ways, even though there were plenty of experts at places like LSU who could’ve told them what needed to be done to avert catastrophe from, at that time, a fictional Katrina. It would have cost something like $14 billion to do such a task, and they needed to have started years ago. But they didn’t, and Katrina finally came, and New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast region sat there with their thumbs up their bureaucratic asses, content with their manana attitudes and their “What, Me Worry?” sense of “God will provide” fatalism.

Meanwhile, that economy only works for the established white folks and old-money types who’ve been living in ease for generations. Thus leaving the poor and the blacks living in hovels and taking city buses to their minimum-wage jobs, with the idea of a Category 4-and-up hurricane the farthest thing from their minds.

So Katrina came, and this dumb-ass, ill-prepared, unimaginative city—but, boy, can they play zydeco and Dixieland!—just figured that maybe the wind and water would pass them perilously by. And when it didn’t, and they looked like fools—you get one from Column A: Ray Nagin, a mentally challenged, seemingly uneducated puppet mayor; and one from Column B: Gov. Kathleen Blanco (Wow! A female governor! Hurray for social progress!), who acted during the crisis like a grammar-school principal who had made a few mistakes in organizing the semi-annual fire drill—they rushed to blame the federal government for all their own ills.

Suddenly, “Brownie”—as in, “You’re doin’ a heckuva job”—was to blame. Now I’m not going to defend Michael Brown, President Bush’s then-man at FEMA. But why is it that, long before Katrina, we had all kinds of hurricanes in Florida and the Carolinas, and not one word was ever said about FEMA’s ineptitude? So suddenly FEMA is completely lacking? Well, FEMA didn’t order up the hurricane. They are a response group, and, under what obviously were very trying circumstances, I can only believe that many good men and women tried their best.

But moreso, FEMA was not responsible for what the hurricane exposed about New Orleans: That it’s a backwards place, that the poor side of town looks like the antebellum plantation South, that it’s hot and humid and some people walk around in rags, that rich aristocratic people pay crap wages to a virtual slave labor pool, and that the local government and police will always look the other way if it’s in their self-interest to do so.

Who can forget the firestorm of controversy in 1986 at Super Bowl XX, when Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon called the fine ladies of New Orleans “sluts”? Funny, that amid all that outrage, no one thought to actually correct McMahon’s assertion. They were only shocked that he said it. But nakedness and drunkenness are a couple of other things that characterize this fair city. Now I’m not really against either, no more than Jim McMahon was. But when drunken revelry and sluttiness are hallmarks of your town, should we be surprised that when the hurricanes come no one is prepared?

With its Southern political paternalism and ingrained bigotry, New Orleans always was a cesspool of official corruption, commercial vice and lazy Southern ways wedded to a culture of kinky sin and Christian repentance with an admixture of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Its highest testament to its sensual glory was always its music and food, but that was only public relations folderol. For the real dope on the New Orleans mise en scene, check out Clint Eastwood’s 1984 flick Tightrope (he starred; Richard Tuggle wrote and directed).

Now we have the big Superdome coming-out party, with President Bush the First making the coin flip, and Spike Lee sitting in the announcer’s booth with ESPN’s racially correct talent lineup—a Jew, a black and an Italian white man (they would never allow an Anglo-Saxon or Celtic white man in there, of course, unless it’s an OLD Celt like John Madden)—and electronic media’s answer to “Why Isn’t Mom at Home?”—Michele Tafoya—asking murderously insipid questions of Harry Connick Jr., who was not and never will be the latter-day Frank Sinatra but is trading big-time on the Katrina market even though he’s spent the last 20 years of his life outside of New Orleans being a pop star and then launching a mediocre acting career which has no doubt reached its zenith with his ongoing role in “Will and Grace.” Yah, Harry’s from the Big Easy. Big deal. (New Orleans native Avery Johnson, also interviewed on ESPN, gets a pass in this diatribe. He was a very good NBA basketball player, seems to be a very good NBA coach, and truly appears to be a sincere and hard-working and grateful fellow.)

Meanwhile, ESPN cameras zoom all over the refurbished Superdome, where we get to experience all over again how New Orleans is a slovenly land of lazy good-for-nothings who were content to live there all those years with a corrupt sociopolitical infrastructure—so ingrainedly corrupt that the morons have since returned do-nothing Mayor Nagin to office, even after he clearly proved to be a name-caller and a blamer-of-others when Katrina suddenly forced him to step up and show his face. (It was so much easier to be an inarticulate African American toady for the old-line white power brokers; then Katrina came and the world saw what was going on in his city. Tough luck, Ray.)

So, 70,000 people cram the Superdome, their faces painted like Halloween, their gros booze-swilling bodies festooned like Mardi Gras, with slutty ladies hanging on the monied arms of men who easily evacuated the hurricane while 200,000 po’ black folk were engulfed by fatal waters that destroyed what was left of their shanties and shacks.

I don’t wanna hear some New York-based electronic journalist tell me one more thing about the “Upper 9th Ward” or the “Lower 9th Ward,” phrases bandied about as if there would be some cathartic exorcism of our collective guilt if we only repeated them over and over, like some age-old Cajun mantras.

I don’t have any guilt. It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t there. And, like everyone else, I fear and respect natural disaster. But by God, they came and took our money and they handed it out like candy to all the people of New Orleans. And they gave them charge cards–which someone used to buy Louis Vuitton luggage, goddammit—and then they forced us to wear a national hairshirt because... because...because New Orleans was a screwed-up place to begin with! It had not addressed its deep-seated and long-standing social problems, it had not addressed its deep-seated and long-standing coastal-erosion and river-flow problems, it hadn’t even built up its levees sufficiently to keep pace with what was going on geologically and, yes, meteorologically. (Do they have TV weatherpersons down there in the Big Easy like they do in every other big city? Hell, if there’s a light dusting of dew in Nashville, the weather guys and gals put on a show five times a day. They explain it, they analyze it, they go crazy about it. And they even tell you when you can take your umbrella out of the closet, bless their hearts.) So, I’m just wondering: Do the New Orleans weather people know that hurricane activity has been particularly antsy in the recent era? Could there have been one forward-thinking person anywhere in the entire city, somewhere along the line, in the past 20 years, to at least have urged the city to get minimally prepared for a Katrina? Well, no, not if you’re like Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, which was a very big movie in 1987 but actually sucks if you watch it now. Alas, it remains a reminder of the N’awlins mindset: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and if it IS broke, don’t bother to find out. Just get your cut, and head to Tipitina’s for some crawfish.

So New Orleans has a football team again. Swell. That’s okay, the po’ folk who got chased out by Katrina and were relocated at my expense couldn’t afford to go to those games anyway. Meanwhile, they want to sink more and more money into rejuvenating the Crescent City, or as Connick explained: They need more people (like us) to come down there and spend our hard-earned money on their music and food and their night-life and hotels, so New Orleans can be great again. And maybe that’ll be a lot more fun, too, now that all the deadwood poverty-stricken have been forced out of town. Golly, maybe Katrina was a blessing!

Sorry, Harry. They already came and got my money and sent it down to New Orleans. In fact, I want my money back. Hell, I’ll take the luggage. Then maybe I’ll take a trip to Seattle. I hear that’s a pretty intelligent place. And they don’t have a hurricane season, either.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

NFL Week 3 ATS: Contenders and Pretenders

We're off to a late start in our 2006 battle against the spread. Life gets in the way of "real life" sometimes. My preseason predictions for the entire season eventually got published elsewhere this year. To view my prognostications, with complete playoff and Super Bowl projections, go to and check out the submissions under "Staff Writer." I'm taking upside flyers on teams like the Chargers and Bills this year, though I don't see either making the playoffs. And the rough starts of the Redskins, Panthers and Buccaneers already have my playoff predictions looking like toast. But, as the estimable Tim Trushler, CEO of, says: "It's early yet." Thank God for that. Today's spreads come courtesy of

1. NY JETS @ BUFFALO (-6) Two teams feeling good about themselves and their 1-1 records. Each of them has already played the Patriots tough. Under normal circumstances, the Bills might give three points as a prosaic home favorite, but someone thinks their road win versus Miami means maybe more than it does. They oughta win, but that spread is ticklish. Prediction: Jets.

2. CINCINNATI @ PITTSBURGH (-2) The World Champions can't even get a standard home-field nod of three points? Someone thinks Big Ben hasn't found himself yet—and he probably hasn't. But the Bengals got banged up physically last weekend, and the Steelers' D held the Jaguars to three field goals in Jacksonville. Prediction: Steelers.

3. JACKSONVILLE @ INDIANAPOLIS (-7) A tantalizing proposition here. Colts have looked good, and they're at home. But Jags have also looked good, and here's their chance to send a message to the league. Colts win, but Jags cover. Prediction: Jaguars.

4. TENNESSEE @ MIAMI (-11) If the 'Fins don't win, they might have to kiss the playoffs goodbye. Few teams start 0-3 and live to see the postseason. Yeah, they oughta take down the Titans, who are as bad as can be at the moment. Hmmm...11 points. It might not come easily, but if Nick Saban keeps the offense cranking just to get some practice in, they could win, say, 22-10. Prediction: Dolphins.

5. WASHINGTON (-4) @ HOUSTON I hate games like this. The Redskins look very lost, but their defense is still a serious entity. The Texans are at home and looking to get a break. But Houston's offensive line got worse (if that was possible) because of injuries last weekend. Tough call here, but look for 'Skins' D to make some big plays and cover. Prediction: Redskins.

6. CHICAGO (-3.5) @ MINNESOTA Vikings are 2-0 and have won each game by three points, one in overtime. Bears kicking ass with rejuvenated offense behind Rex Grossman. Rex means "king" in Latin. Prediction: Bears.

7. CAROLINA (-3) @ TAMPA BAY Wait a minute—which of these underachieving NFC South teams is the home team? Both are 0-2 and both have looked worse than wanting. True, the Bucs have looked the lamer of the two. Chris Simms is not showing the expected improvement over last year's good showing. I see a push on the numbers, so Panthers don't cover. Prediction: Bucs.

8. GREEN BAY @ DETROIT (-6.5) Two 0-2 teams already going nowhere. Brett Favre is the only possible sure thing in this game. Prediction: Packers.

9. BALTIMORE (-6.5) @ CLEVELAND The Ravens' D looks as destructive as Hurricane Katrina. Injuries to Browns secondary makes them even more vulnerable than they already were. And the Brownie offense is still trying to find itself. Prediction: Ravens.

10. ST. LOUIS @ ARIZONA (-5) Pretty interesting game here. Both teams capable of scoring. Both teams trying to establish a new era in defense. Cards might win, but covering the points is another matter. Prediction: Rams.

11. NY GIANTS @ SEATTLE (-4) Seattle D carrying the team at the moment. It would be a huge win for Giants, and they might very well cover. Tough, tough call for the punter. Factor in the jet lag. Prediction: Seahawks.

12. PHILADELPHIA (-6) @ SAN FRANCISCO Eagles shellshocked after blowing big lead and losing to Giants in Philly. Niners offense starting to develop, and they're getting some plays from defenders. Take McNabb and the chalk, but this spread is no gimme. Prediction: Eagles.

13. DENVER @ NEW ENGLAND (-6.5) The Broncos are 1-1 and have looked worse than that. Now they head into Foxboro to face a 2-0 Patriots squad that has won with moxie and a reworked running game that's been getting serious yards from rookie Laurence Maroney. The Broncos may not win, but if they don't even cover this spread, then they have bigger problems than most of us could have guessed. Prediction: Broncos.

14. ATLANTA (-3.5) @ NEW ORLEANS If you were trying to generate some action on this game, why would you only extend the lowly Saints three-and-a-half points? Oh yeah...the Saint are 2-0, after thumping the mighty Browns and Packers. And they won 'em both on the road. So the Saints come home with a perfect record to the cleaned-up Superdome with a marquee rookie (Reggie Bush) poised to make a big splash. It's a very, very nice story, but you'd have to give me more points than that against a Falcons squad that looks like they're taking a miracle drug. Prediction: Falcons.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Titans 2006: Fasten Your Seatbelts, It's Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

The Tennessee Titans were 9-23 the past two years. They were trying to rebuild and achieve at the same time, which simply doesn't work. Mediocrity is the only result of that strategem. Now the last vestige of recent success, Steve McNair, is gone, and it's anybody's guess whether the team is doing any rebuilding or achieving. Peter King, Sports Illustrated's football guru, was heard recently on ESPN Radio saying that he thought the Titans would "compete" this year. He didn't exactly say they'd be competing for a division title, however. It sounded like a positive spin, but it also sounded like King was hedging his bets.

Unfortunately, the Titans still look bad. Or at least bad when compared with the teams they play against on this year's schedule. They've got the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars twice apiece. Then the schedule makers, who are supposed to go easy on teams with bad records, pitted the Titans against Miami, Dallas, San Diego, Washington, New York Giants, and New England, all teams with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs. The Titans might eke out a "W" here and there, but a pessimist could see them losing all of these games. So if, perchance, they manage to go 4-2 against their lesser opponents, they'd wind up 4-12.

I wish I could paint a more Pollyanna-ish picture. But there are a lot of good reasons to suspect that the Titans will suck in 2006. Here they are position by position:

QUARTERBACK—In a late training camp move, the team added veteran QB Kerry Collins. Collins has been to a Super Bowl and has 11 years experience in the league with Carolina, New Orleans, the Giants and Oakland. He's a good quarterback, except that he throws way too many interceptions, which explains why he's never quite ever vaulted into the highest echelon of pro QBs. His presence makes supposed incumbent #1 Billy Volek nervous, and with good reason: Volek's preseason performance seemed, well, lacking. With either guy at the helm, mediocrity awaits. The only alternative is to go with savior Vince Young (left), who didn't look too bad in the preseason finale against a bad Packers team. Watching Young play could be fun, if also a little painful, as he learns how to do it in the NFL. So the choice is a mediocre veteran or a fresh young turk who could run the offense like a Chinese fire drill. In the interests of the future, I'll take the fire drill.

RUNNING BACK—If we're doing things Chinese, then, in Column A, you get fourth-year pro Chris Brown. Talented, injury-prone, and with a straight-up running style that continues to annoy his critics. In Column B, there's Travis Henry, a swift, darting scatback type who performs when healthy and not suspended for substance abuse. In Column C, there's rookie LenDale White (left), who hasn't shown much in preseason but remains a hope for the future. Maybe give him the ball in the Chinese fire drill. Might be worthwhile to see him develop.

WIDE RECEIVER—Free agent David Givens (left) has been injured all summer and no one knows what he can do yet. Instead of starting, Drew Bennett, tall and hustling, would probably be a #3 on a better team. Bears castoff Bobby Wade is short, intense, can catch a ball in a crowd, but is not as fast as you hope he'd be. Possibly one of last year's three rookie wide receivers, like Brandon Jones maybe, will emerge to boost the corps. It is not, however, an elite corps, no matter how you line 'em up.

TIGHT END—Ben Troupe (left), in his third year out of Florida, looks like a talent finally blooming. Vet Erron Kinney has been sidelined with injury, and second-year man Bo Scaife, out of Texas, seems to be getting serious playing time. If Troupe improves his blocking, he could become a fixture for years.

OFFENSIVE LINE—Brad Hopkins retired and Justin Hartwig fled to Carolina. So third-year man Jacob Bell gets a chance to be the new left tackle and veteran Kevin Mawae (left), 35, with six Pro Bowl credits, was signed to play center. The line has some experience but now it has some age and a new learning curve. They might be okay. Eventually.

DEFENSIVE LINE—This unit was tagged as a strength at one point, mainly because it had depth. Then Rien Long was lost for the year and Antwan Odom hurt his knee. Still, the starting four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Randy Starks, Albert Haynesworth (left) and Travis LaBoy looks to be a promising blend of youth and experience. On the other hand, Haynesworth, supposedly a big talent yet to hit his stride, enters his fifth year having played in 52 games but with only 7.5 sacks. A big talent gets that many sacks in less than a season. Haynesworth talks it up, but he hasn't really produced as expected. But there is hope here.

LINEBACKER—With Keith Bulluck (left), this unit is a strength. Another plus is David Thornton, who joined the team in the off-season from the Colts. Peter Sirmon is a nice complement to their skills. Not much depth here, however. The starting trio needs to stay healthy.

SECONDARY—Safety Chris Hope (left) joins the Titans from the Super Bowl-winning Steelers of last year. That's good news. Cornerback Pacman Jones gets arrested again. That's bad news. Just seeing Jones' punk ass on the field makes the viewer nervous. Maybe he'll grow up. Maybe he'll perform. Maybe he won't. Reynaldo Hill is the other cornerback. He hustles and might get better. The other safety is Lamont Thompson. He hustles but has yet to distinguish himself as a top-flight player. We can say that this might be a very good unit if everything falls into place. But we could be wrong.

KICKERS—Rob Bironas (left) appears to be a solid, workmanlike placekicker, able to convert the field goals he should and occasionally hitting a long one. Craig Hentrich (right) enters his 14th season as an NFL punter and is the model of consistency. He can also handle long placekicks in a pinch. The kicking game looks good.

KICK RETURNS—It looks like Bobby Wade (left) will handle the kickoffs this year, and Pacman Jones (right) will do his thing as a punt returner. Wade is surehanded, but he's not really very fast. He'll do okay, but it seems unlikely that he'll break a long one. Jones, if he doesn't freak and drop the ball, is capable of long punt returns, and given what offensive struggles await the team, he'll have to be worth the risk.

SPECIAL TEAMS–Who knows? Let's hope they don't blow any big assignments and get downfield to cover punts and kickoffs without suffering any severe injuries. Alan Lowry, Titans special teams coach, is pictured at the left.

The Titans might jell in some respects. Worse-looking teams have had their surprise seasons. But there are so many what-ifs that it seems impossible for the team to actually achieve, much less compete for a division title. The brutal schedule will test Coach Jeff Fisher's PR skills. And maybe cost him his job.

MEDIA NOTES: Anybody catch the Titans' final preseason game on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m.? Some of us were fortunate to be home at that time, watching football, instead of facing rush-hour traffic. Doing so got us a dose of the Titans local TV coverage on WKRN-Channel 2. John Dwyer handled the play-by-play. (Eh...not bad, but he kinda stumbles his way through trying to be "cool," and "snappy.") Then there's Eddie George, whom we all love for good reasons, though I'm not sure any of them are about his color analysis skills. Ex-jocks get a wide berth and plenty of time to ride the learning curve. He still stutter-steps his way through reportage, fumbles through his phraseology, and, when at a loss for words, will exclaim, "Now THAT'S what ya gotta do!" (over and over). Maybe he'll get better at this, but it's apparent that rushing for more than 10,000 yards came a lot easier to him. The wild-card booth presence was Chris Stout, an executive for the Titans television network. Not sure what that means. The Titans were on Channel 2, so isn't WKRN the Titans' TV network? I guess they feed those broadcasts to other southern cities, and Stout must be in charge of that, and it's all part of some corporate arrangement, etc. Anyway, Stout's okay, in a typical youngish sports executive way, although it was he who introduced Albert Haynesworth's puny sack statistic onto the airwaves (7.5 in 52 games), which he did by way of praising the defensive tackle. Not really very incisive work. On the sidelines, we got a dose of Joe Dubin, a newish Channel 2 sports guy. His interviews were good, and maybe it helps down there to be a big hulking guy who can stick your microphone into somebody's face. Dubin was articulate at a moment's notice. His presence begs a certain question, however. Since when is television NOT a visual medium? With the coming of Dubin, and the news that Channel 2 has also hired Brad Schmitt of the Tennessean to do his bullshit entertainment thing, you'd have to believe that being bald, fat and geekish had suddenly come into telegeneic vogue. Maybe it's sorta the same reason that Taylor Hicks won American Idol last time out, even though Katharine McPhee was clearly more talented, and happens to be beautiful. It's the latter-day anti-glam impulse, the attempt to show that people are acknowledged for their brains as much as their beauty. Not sure the formula computes where Schmitt is concerned. (But thank goodness for FOX, where being blonde, beautiful, and brainless still has merit.)