The countdown is on.
Quarterback Peyton Manning has 31 touchdown passes in the Indianapolis Colts' nine games, putting him 17 touchdown passes from Dan Marino's 20-year-old single-season NFL record. The first 50-touchdown-pass season in league history seems well within Manning's reach in this passing-friendly season, especially the way he's been going lately. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes in the Colts' last three games.
The reigning NFL co-most valuable player is on pace to finish the season with 55 touchdown passes. If Manning gets the record, it would be because his performance this season has been a perfect mix of a great player at his best and favorable circumstances. Manning, in his seventh NFL season at 28, studies the game harder and understands it better than anyone else, and his physical skills are at their peak.
Peyton Manning understands the game better than anyone else in the NFL, and his physical skills are at their peak.
(Brent Smith - Reuters)
It can't be understated, though, that the crackdown on defensive clutching-and-grabbing tactics by officials ordered in the offseason by the NFL's competition committee has made the record-threatening runs of Manning and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper possible. The directive hasn't made every quarterback and every wide receiver in the league practically unstoppable, as some feared when the season began. But it has made the most accurate passers and the very best receivers next to impossible to defend.
Manning is on pace to finish with 4,887 passing yards, and he has a passer rating of 122.7. His single-season NFL bests are 33 passing touchdowns, 4,413 yards and a 99.0 rating.
Culpepper is on a pace to finish with 44 passing touchdowns and 4,821 passing yards, and he has a passer rating of 115.4. His single-season bests are 33 touchdowns, 3,937 yards and a 98.0 rating. In addition, Culpepper is completing 70.4 percent of his passes and is on course to finish the season with 402 completions, up from his bests of 65 percent and 333 completions.
Neither Manning nor Culpepper currently is on pace to break Marino's single-season NFL record of 5,084 passing yards -- set, like his touchdowns record, for the Miami Dolphins in 1984. But either could threaten that record with a few monstrous games, and Culpepper could threaten the single-season league marks of 418 completions (by Rich Gannon for the Oakland Raiders in 2002) and a 70.55 percent completion rate (by Ken Anderson for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982). Both Manning and Culpepper currently have passer ratings above the NFL's single-season best of 112.8 by Steve Young for the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.
Meantime, Philadelphia Eagles wideout Terrell Owens has a shot at Jerry Rice's record for touchdown catches in a season -- 22 for the 49ers in 1987. Owens has 12 touchdown receptions in the Eagles' nine games, putting him on pace for 21 for the season.
Parcells Still Not Going to Henson
Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells made it clear Wednesday that, even with the team at 3-6 after Monday night's lopsided loss to the Eagles at Texas Stadium, he's not ready to sit down 41-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde in favor of rookie Drew Henson.
"It's not that I wouldn't like to find out about the player,'' Parcells said during a news conference. "I want to do that. But right now, I don't think it's the time. So that's it. It's going to stay that way for a while, and you're just going to have to get used to it. And it's not me being hard-headed. It's me evaluating the situation for what it is with a great deal more information than anyone else has, and that's my judgment.''
Parcells said he doesn't think that Henson, who spent the previous three years playing professional baseball, is ready to benefit from extensive playing time, and he indicated that he still wants to do his best to try to win games this season. And playing Testaverde, he said, gives the Cowboys the best chance of that.
"This is not a tryout camp here,'' Parcells said. "My job is to try to win games. It's as simple as that.'' . . .
Rookie tailback Julius Jones, who'd been sidelined since breaking his shoulder blade in Week 2, participated in the Cowboys' practice Wednesday but is not scheduled to play Sunday at Baltimore.
Davis's Future Uncertain
Carolina Panthers tailback Stephen Davis underwent microfracture surgery Tuesday on his ailing right knee. Many NFL players -- including Marino, career sacks leader Bruce Smith and defensive back Rod Woodson -- resumed their careers after the procedure, in which surgeons drill holes into the kneecap.
But Davis, who turns 31 in March, is at the age at which most running backs are on the downsides of their careers, and neither he nor the Panthers have any way of knowing how productive he will be when he attempts to return next season. The Panthers placed him on the injured reserve list last weekend after he played in only two games this season and rushed for 92 yards. . . .
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme sat out Wednesday's practice because of a broken bone in the tip of his right thumb. Rodney Peete or Chris Weinke could start Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals if Delhomme is unable to play. . . .
Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun told reporters Wednesday that he offered to take over Carolina's kicking duties for the injured John Kasay this weekend if needed -- but only if the team would refund some of the approximately $40,000 in fine money that he has accrued this season for violating a weight clause in his contract.
The Panthers declined the offer and signed Jeff Chandler to their practice squad. He probably would be promoted to the 53-man roster if Kasay, who has a strained calf muscle, is unable to kick. Sauerbrun kicked four extra points and a go-ahead field goal as an emergency fill-in last Sunday in a win at San Francisco.
Sauerbrun told reporters that he is a pound or two above the 217-pound limit to which he and the Panthers agreed. He signed a four-year, $6 million contract last year. Sauerbrun indicated he is fined $6,000 for each occasion that he weighs in and misses the limit, and he has missed the limit each time he has weighed in this season.
Sauerbrun also did his best to veto any plan that the Panthers might have had to sign Bill Gramatica as their kicker this week. Sauerbrun has had a long-running public feud with the Gramatica brothers over their demonstrative celebrations of successful field goals. . . .
Cardinals Coach Dennis Green not only has continued to juggle the starters on his offensive line into the season, and not only did he change his offensive line coach after six games, but now he also is rotating players at several spots along the line during games.
"There are a lot of things in the National Football League that people do because that's the way that people have always done it,'' Green said during a news conference this week. "We don't mind thinking outside the box.'' . . .
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Koren Robinson met with NFL officials Tuesday in New York. He is appealing his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The league is likely to uphold the suspension, but it might not begin until next week. . . .
Seattle linebacker Anthony Simmons will be sidelined for the remainder of the season because of a broken left wrist that will require surgery. But Seahawks defensive end Grant Wistrom is to return to the lineup this week after missing four games because of a broken bone in his left knee. . . .
Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter addressed his teammates, as scheduled, Wednesday and apologized to them for being ejected from last Sunday's win over Cleveland before it even started because of his pregame fight with Browns running back William Green. . . .
The Colts are short-handed at guard this week. One starter, Rick DeMulling, has remained limited in practice after being sidelined last weekend by a bruised chest. The other starter, Tupe Peko, is sidelined by a foot injury, and backup Makoa Freitas sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sore back. Jake Scott could make a second straight start for DeMulling, and fellow rookie Ryan Lilja perhaps could fill in for Peko. . . .
Oakland linebacker Travian Smith will be sidelined at least three weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. . . .
Denver will be without defensive tackle Luther Elliss this week because of a pulled calf muscle.
According to the league, last Sunday was the first time in NFL history that overtime games ended with a touchdown, a field goal and a safety on the same day. . . .
NFL quarterbacks have had 18 games this season with at least four touchdowns passes, one shy of the single-season record set in 1963. There were four such performances in Week 10 (by Manning, Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre).
In 12 of the 18 outings this season with four or more touchdown passes, the quarterback didn't throw an interception. . . .
Of the 42 catches made by New England wide receiver David Givens this season, 39 have resulted in first downs. . . .
Ravens safety Ed Reed's average of 34.5 yards per interception return is the highest in NFL history among players with at least 15 chances.
The Pressure's on Eli
Rookie starting quarterbacks are 10-0 league-wide this season, with seven wins coming from Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and three from Chicago's Craig Krenzel. A third rookie starter joins in this week, with top overall draft choice Eli Manning taking over for the New York Giants.
Even the much-celebrated quarterback class of 1983 only produced a 14-10 record by its rookie starters -- 7-2 by Marino, 4-6 by John Elway, 2-2 by Tony Eason and 1-0 by Gary Kubiak. . . .
Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair practiced Wednesday and seems likely to start Sunday at Jacksonville after missing two games after he aggravated his bruised sternum. . . .
Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington had a good practice Wednesday, according to Lions officials, after being put on notice this week by Coach Steve Mariucci that he could be in danger of losing the starting job to Mike McMahon. . . .
Injured New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington might start a throwing program next week as he tries to work his way back from a rotator-cuff injury. Quincy Carter is to make his second straight start this week, and likely will start at least another game or two after that. There has been some speculation that Pennington might have a tear in his rotator cuff, and he will undergo another MRI exam at some point. . . .
Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese was limited in Wednesday's practice because of a bruised right shoulder. He was roughed up in last Sunday's loss to Atlanta, being sacked seven times. Chris Simms got the majority of the snaps Wednesday in place of Griese and likely would be the Buccaneers' starter if Griese is sidelined, but Coach Jon Gruden wouldn't say whether he would go with Simms or Brad Johnson. . . .
Derrick Blaylock is preparing to make a second straight start at tailback for Kansas City on Monday night against New England. The Chiefs excused Priest Holmes from Wednesday's practice so that he could seek a second medical opinion on his injured right knee. Blaylock ran for 186 yards in last weekend's loss to New Orleans. . . .
Saints wide receiver Joe Horn aggravated a knee injury in Wednesday's practice, making his status for Sunday's game against Denver uncertain. . . .
Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson has spent the week joking that fans should bring $1 apiece to Sunday's game against Pittsburgh to contribute to paying the fine he would receive from the NFL for the celebration he's planning to perform if he scores a touchdown against the Steelers. Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis has not been amused.