The first half of Dennis Green's first season as coach of the Arizona Cardinals was a tumultuous one. He reworked his offensive line almost constantly and continued to revamp his coaching staff into the season. His team had to play without injured wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and lost five of its first seven games.
But Boldin is back in the lineup now, and the Cardinals suddenly look like a team that could be dangerous in the second half of the season. They have won two straight games, are 3-1 at home and, at 4-5 overall, are only a game behind the division-leading St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks in the meek NFC West. Their latest victory was a 17-14, come-from-behind triumph Sunday over the fading New York Giants.
"We felt we beat a good team,'' Green said during a news conference on Monday, "and that means we're a step closer to being a good team. . . . It's not all bad being 4-5 if you're playing a certain way when you're 4-5. In a turnaround program, we have our backs against the wall every week. That's a good place to be because it lets us show our mettle -- what we are really made out of and what we are really seeking.''
Green led the Minnesota Vikings to eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons as their coach between 1992 and 2001, but inherited a Cardinals team that had managed only one winning season in 19 years.
The transition was far from seamless. He released incumbent starting quarterback Jeff Blake in February and decided to go with third-year pro Josh McCown. He made 35-year-old Emmitt Smith, the NFL's career rushing leader, his starting tailback at the end of summer practices. He benched left tackle L.J. Shelton, moved Leonard Davis from guard to tackle and cut starting center Pete Kendall just before training camp. When that didn't work out, Green benched right guard Cameron Spikes and right tackle Anthony Clement last month and replaced them with Jeremy Bridges and Shelton. He fired veteran offensive line coach Bob Wylie six games into the season and replaced him with rookie coach Everett Lindsay, after bringing in longtime associate Carl Hargrave as an offensive consultant in late September.
But now, with Boldin back from a knee injury to go with fellow wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, Green has his three-receiver offense intact. And he has a defense that sacked Giants quarterback Kurt Warner six times and produced a victory Sunday when the team gained only 178 yards overall. Defensive end Bertrand Berry, signed as a free agent from Denver in the offseason, had four sacks Sunday and has nine sacks this season.
"It starts the first day, establishing what kind of program you're going to have, what your expectations are, how it could be really good, it could be fun, you could fit in, you could really enjoy yourself, but we're going to have it a certain way,'' Green said. "I think that we've got some guys who have really believed that."
Giving Rookies the Ball
Just call him Roethlisberger Lite: Rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel improved to 3-0 as Chicago's starter with the Bears' 19-17 overtime victory on Sunday at Tennessee. Krenzel, a fifth-round draft choice from Ohio State, threw two interceptions in a 10-for-28, 116-yard passing day. His 19.3 passer rating was the lowest in the league this season for the quarterback of a winning team, and the Bears won on a safety.
But Krenzel engineered the drive that produced a tying field goal near the end of regulation, and he is succeeding where Jonathan Quinn failed after taking over for the injured Rex Grossman. Krenzel has yet to have more than 13 completions or reach 170 passing yards in any of his starts. But Chicago has its first three-game winning streak since the final weeks of the 2001 season and the Bears, at 4-5, are only a game out of first place in the forgiving NFC North. . . .
Half of the quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's draft are now starters, with the Giants promoting top overall pick Eli Manning this week to join the Pittsburgh Steelers' 11th overall choice, Ben Roethlisberger.
But Buffalo Bills Coach Mike Mularkey isn't ready to make it three out of four, at least not quite yet. After sending in rookie J.P. Losman, the 22nd overall selection in the draft from Tulane, to make his NFL debut in mop-up duty during a 29-6 loss on Sunday to New England, Mularkey said he is sticking with veteran Drew Bledsoe as his starter this week.
Mularkey said that, despite the Bills' 3-6 record, he isn't ready to give up on reaching the playoffs and he doesn't believe that Losman, after missing nearly two months because of a broken leg, is ready to benefit from extensive playing time.
"I think it can be a negative if you put him in just to see what he's capable of doing in a tight ballgame,'' Mularkey said. "If we are struggling and you're looking for a spark, I think it can be counterproductive if you do that, too, if it's not the right time to do it. And I'm not sure right now is the right time to do it.''
Bledsoe, 32, appears to be on the downward slope of his career. In his last 23 games dating from the third game of last season, he has had no 300-yard passing performances and five outings with fewer than 100 passing yards. He completed only 8 of 19 passes against the Patriots, his original NFL team, for 76 yards, with three interceptions and a career-worst passer rating of 14.3. He is 1-5 against the Patriots since being traded to Buffalo in 2002. . . .
New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards took the blame for Sunday's overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Jets mismanaged the clock at the end of regulation, having to settle for a tying field goal by Doug Brien after squandering their final timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty when fill-in quarterback Quincy Carter got the play call from the sideline late.
"I feel I really let the team down,'' Edwards said. . . .
Seattle wide receiver Koren Robinson was to have his pending four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy reviewed yesterday. Robinson is appealing the suspension, and the league likely will make a ruling within the next few days.
Dolphins Expected to Make Run at Pioli
Many people in the league believe that the Miami Dolphins will make a renewed effort to hire Patriots personnel chief Scott Pioli as their general manager after the season. The Dolphins reportedly were interested in Pioli as a possible GM candidate after last season but didn't want to wait until after the Patriots' season ended to get a chance to interview him. The Patriots seemed prepared to contend then that language in Pioli's contract prevented him from leaving. . . .
The notion entering the season that the NFC East would be loaded has proven to be way off base. The Philadelphia Eagles are 6-1 against non-NFC East opponents. The Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins are a combined 8-11 against non-division foes. . . .
The Baltimore Ravens waived tackle Damion Cook, a three-year veteran who appeared in nine games this season. The Ravens also terminated the practice squad contract of wide receiver Michael Jennings and signed defensive back Brandon Pinderhughes to the practice squad. . . .
The league fined Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter and Cleveland running back William Green $10,000 each for their pregame fight Sunday. Both were ejected before the game and Browns fullback Terrelle Smith also was fined $10,000 for becoming involved in the incident. . . .
The Browns waived running back James Jackson to make room on their roster for rookie running back Adimchinobe Echemandu.