Welcome to the most nerve-racking week of the year for NFL coaches and executives.
Training camp is a fading memory. The meaningful work of getting ready for the season is practically finished, and most of the big roster decisions are all but made. But the games that count haven't arrived yet and full-scale preparations for the regular-season opener won't begin until next week, after the final roster trims are made. There's one more preseason game to be played, and virtually nothing good can happen in it. Teams generally don't want to keep their starters entirely idle, so they send them on the field for a few series and cross their fingers that no one gets hurt.
"This is the worst part of the year,'' Detroit Lions President Matt Millen said by telephone Tuesday evening. "You go through training camp, and now you have to get through this last game. This is brutal. You think you have an idea about your team, but you don't really know. You can't know. You haven't game-planned for anyone. I was watching some tape on the Redskins [for whom Millen played in 1991 in Joe Gibbs's first coaching stint with the club], and they've shown about 20 percent of their offense. That's it.''
Consider the plight of new Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr. His quarterback, Michael Vick, is learning a new offensive system but has taken only 24 snaps in three preseason games. Mora withheld Vick from the Falcons' triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday because of a sore hamstring that has plagued the quarterback for weeks. The work has been good for rookie quarterback Matt Schaub, who has thrown three touchdown passes in each of Atlanta's last two games, but Vick's inactivity isn't helping him get comfortable with the offense.
Mora might like to get Vick a little bit of extra work in Friday's preseason finale against the Redskins at FedEx Field But every additional moment that Vick spends on the field in a meaningless game exposes him that much more to the possibility of the sort of injury that he suffered in the preseason last year. That ruined the Falcons' season before it even began and got Mora's predecessor, Dan Reeves, fired. Mora already lost one key player, possibly for six to 10 weeks, when prized rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall, the eighth overall selection in the draft out of Virginia Tech, suffered a slight hip fracture during the Cincinnati game.
The final preseason games take place Thursday and Friday, and the decision-makers on most NFL teams will be overjoyed when it's over.
Jackson To Dolphins?
Miami might send a mid-round draft choice to Cleveland for third-string tailback James Jackson, who is stuck behind Lee Suggs and William Green and has said he wants the Browns to trade him.
The Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals are among the teams that have inquired about Jackson, but the Cardinals are out of the running after getting tailback help elsewhere. They traded a 2005 draft pick to Oakland on Tuesday for tailback Troy Hambrick and defensive end Peppi Zellner.
Hambrick again becomes Emmitt Smith's backup, just as he once was in Dallas, and gives the Cardinals an insurance policy after they lost the injured Marcel Shipp. Hambrick was beaten out by Amos Zereoue for the Raiders' No. 3 tailback spot, behind starter Tyrone Wheatley and top reserve Justin Fargas. . . .
With cornerback Charles Woodson signing his one-year, $8.7824-million contract tender Tuesday and reporting to the Raiders, only two players with franchise tags remain absent from their teams -- left tackles Orlando Pace of the St. Louis Rams and Walter Jones of the Seattle Seahawks. . . .
The New York Giants attempted to address one of the glaring deficiencies on their offensive line by trading a draft choice Tuesday to Tampa Bay for guard Jason Whittle, a 2002 starter for the Giants who signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent before last season. Whittle lost his starting job in Tampa last season and became expendable after the Buccaneers' offseason moves to try to upgrade their line. The Giants inherit the four seasons remaining on Whittle's contract, with salaries totaling $5.87 million (including $820,000 this season). It was the Giants' first trade for a veteran since April 1995. . . .
The New England Patriots settled on Rohan Davey as their backup quarterback when they released veteran Jim Miller on Tuesday. Davey was the star of this year's NFL Europe season but has thrown only nine regular-season passes in two NFL seasons. He has been unsteady during preseason games, connecting on 18 of 39 throws for 156 yards. He is penciled in to play extensively Thursday against Jacksonville, with Brady scheduled for an early exit. Kliff Kingsbury is the No. 3 quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champions. The only thing that could change the Patriots' quarterback plans, it seems, is if Kansas City cuts Damon Huard, Brady's former backup who signed with the Chiefs in the offseason as a free agent. . . .
The Patriots took a chance on signing defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield when other interested teams backed off because of an ankle injury. The move backfired and New England placed Stubblefield on the injured reserve list Tuesday, ending his season. . . . The Raiders seem to think that speedy wide receiver Doug Gabriel, a second-year pro out of Central Florida who had one catch in 12 games and returned kickoffs last season as a rookie, could be a star. . . .
The Giants are taking a risk by handing their kicking job to the untested Todd France. Coach Tom Coughlin released incumbent Matt Bryant at the outset of training camp and cut Bill Gramatica on Tuesday. Bryant was plagued by a hamstring injury and Gramatica has back problems. France never has appeared in a regular-season game, having been released by Minnesota in training camp in each of the last two years. . . .
Bryant's lingering hamstring troubles kept him out of the Cowboys' game against Tennessee on Monday and could keep him from beating out Billy Cundiff for the kicking job. The Cowboys signed Bryant after he was released by the Giants to compete with Cundiff, and Bryant appeared to be leading the competition until getting hurt again. Coach Bill Parcells has indicated that he probably wouldn't consider keeping Bryant if Bryant can't kick in the final preseason game Thursday. . . . The Cowboys released tailback Aveion Cason, who had 17 catches last season as the club's third-down back.
Vikes Turn To Conway
Veteran Brett Conway agreed to a two-year contract Tuesday to replace Aaron Elling as Minnesota's kicker. Conway was the Redskins' regular kicker in 1999 and 2001 before tearing a quadriceps just before the 2002 season. He spent time with the Giants and Browns last season and made all three of his field goal attempts against the Vikings for the Giants. . . . Denver cornerback Lenny Walls is scheduled to get his first playing time Thursday against the Cardinals. He hurt his ankle on the first day of training camp. . . . Cincinnati might sign veteran linebacker Kevin Mitchell, who was released by the Redskins. Mitchell played for Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis when Lewis was the Redskins' defensive coordinator in 2002. . . .
Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday for a cartilage tear in his left knee, but could return before the regular-season opener. . . . Miami reached an agreement with free agent defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who had four sacks for San Francisco last season and has 42 sacks in an 11-year NFL career that also has included stops in Tampa, St. Louis and Buffalo. He could take up some of the pass-rushing slack created by the departure of reigning AFC sack champion Adewale Ogunleye, who was traded to Chicago. . . .
Veteran quarterback Shane Matthews joined the Bills on Tuesday and could play Thursday at Detroit. The Bills need to get him up to speed quickly as the prospective top backup to Drew Bledsoe after losing Travis Brown and rookie J.P. Losman to injuries. . . . Quarterback Quincy Carter is scheduled to make his preseason debut for the New York Jets by playing about two quarters Friday against Philadelphia.
Whiting Deadline Extended
The 49ers and Eagles agreed to extend until Sunday the deadline for San Francisco to decide whether to keep defensive end Brandon Whiting or return him to Philadelphia and receive a third-round draft choice in 2005 from the Eagles to complete the Terrell Owens trade. The deadline had been set for today, but Whiting continues to experience problems with his surgically repaired shoulder. The 49ers want to retain him but first want to be certain that he'll be ready to play sometime soon. . . .
As agent Tom Condon and the Jets apply the finishing touches to a six- or seven-year contract extension for quarterback Chad Pennington that apparently will include about $22 million in guaranteed money and have an overall value of more than $9 million per season, Pennington pushed back his deadline from today to Saturday to have the deal completed or else he'd postpone negotiations until after the season. The extension probably is unnecessary, though, since the agreement is virtually finished. . . .
Titans wide receiver Tyrone Calico likely will miss the start of the regular season after hurting both of his knees during Monday's loss to the Cowboys. He is scheduled to undergo surgery today on his left knee, which sustained a cartilage tear and a sprained medial collateral ligament. His right knee was hurt less seriously, with a sprained MCL and a sprained posterior cruciate ligament. He probably will need two to three weeks of recovery time. Calico is slated to be Tennessee's third receiver behind Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett. . . .
Kansas City wideout Marc Boerigter had knee surgery today and was placed on injured reserve, meaning he'll miss the entire season. Coach Dick Vermeil said he hopes receiver Johnnie Morton resumes practicing next week after being bothered by a sore Achilles tendon. . . . The Chiefs worked out punter Eddie Johnson on Monday but didn't sign him, and plan to give Jason Baker one more chance to keep the job in Thursday's game against Dallas. Lawrence Tynes seems to be leading Morten Andersen in Kansas City's place-kicking competition.