Bright start for Winslow ends bleakly with fourth-quarter errors

CLEVELAND -- Kellen Winslow blamed himself for letting the last pass of the game slip right through his Pro Bowl hands.

"I can't get that last play out of my head," he said. "The great ones make that catch and that's what I want to be. I let my team down."

With 54 seconds remaining, the Browns trailing, 34-30, and facing a fourth and 1 at their 42, Brady Quinn fired a pass to Winslow in the left flat and it sailed right through his hands. End of game.

Never mind that Winslow caught 10 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns, a 5-yarder and a 16-yarder. He also fumbled in the fourth quarter to set up a Denver touchdown that put the Broncos up, 27-23, with 9:50 remaining.

"Dre Bly just made a great play on the ball," said Winslow. "I was trying to protect the ball and get extra yardage. I knew it was going to cost us, and it did."

Winslow redeemed himself some on the next drive when his 30-yard catch and run took the ball to the Denver 24. The catch led to a Jamal Lewis touchdown run that put the Browns back up, 30-27.

But the drop at the end was the only thing that mattered to Winslow.

"It was a routine catch. I love it when the ball comes to me in clutch situations," he said. "That's what I live for and I missed the shot. I let my team down and it was the first time that's happened. I won't let it happen again. I'm going to take it as a lesson and it will make me stronger."

Despite the loss, Winslow praised Quinn, who had instant chemistry with the tight end.

"He's a gamer," said Winslow. "He's real calm in the huddle. He calmed me down when I was excited. He's a good quarterback."

Winslow also committed offensive pass interference that wiped out a 15-yard catch by Braylon Edwards in the fourth quarter.

"They call one every week," said Winslow. "It's pretty frustrating. I don't know what they want me to do."

Winslow's first TD catch was a five-yarder in the first quarter on a post route in which Quinn split two defenders just before getting drilled for a 7-0 lead. His second was a 16-yard catch at the left side in which he shook off safety Marquand Manuel at the 6 and scampered in.

"I just didn't make enough plays," he said.


Should Hester only return kicks?

Special Hester simply ordinary as wide receiver

Mike North: Well, Dan, it happened. My greatest fears have been realized when it comes to Devin Hester.

The Bears have turned Devin into an ordinary ballplayer with extraordinary skills. When I first heard there was a chance the Bears would play him on offense, I was surprised. Hester is a superstar punt and kick returner. They gave him his new deal not because of what he may do in the future, but basically because of what he had done in the past.

He is the best punt returner and kickoff returner I've ever seen. But as a receiver he is simply ordinary. Last week: four catches for 37 yards. Those are Tom Waddle numbers, which is fine, but with all due respect, Hester should be a special-teams player only. He looks beat up; he is playing careful and he is thinking too much.

The only time he should be on offense is in the wildcat offense, where he would get a direct snap. I wanted that last year. This year, back to the bread and butter: kickoff returns and punt returns. He's had two injuries this year. He has not returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown. He is very turnover-prone. His days of being a Pro Bowler are in jeopardy unless things change, and change quickly.

He was a missile and he can be again. Devin Hester got the Bears to the Super Bowl. He was the man. Lovie, call off the wide receiver experience and let him do his thing. If special teams is truly one-third of a team and not just coach-speak, then put him back into his comfort zone. He may catch a bomb from Rex this week, but in the long run, the opposition loves getting their shots at Devin on offense. Let him attack on special teams only.

Best-case scenario, he plays special-teams only -- and he runs one back eventually. Worst-case is he runs over the middle and gets knocked out for a year. Now people will say, ''That's football.'' I say, ''True, but limit his chances of injury. One job and one job only.''

The Bears can make him special again.

Don't remove essential facet of better offense

Dan Jiggetts: Are you kidding? If it were up to me, I would play Devin Hester at cornerback as well. Check that. It was tried and wasn't the best of times. Look, Mike, you can't lose sight of the objective of the offense, which is to put points on the board. After all, six points is still six points, it doesn't matter if they come from the return game or the passing game. The fact is, Devin Hester is a difference-maker. However you can get the football in his hands, you have to do it.

It isn't enough to just relegate Hester to returning punts and kickoffs. Granted, he did develop into an All-Pro by doing that, but teams have now schemed to keep the ball out of his hands. What that means for the opposing teams is they often end up sacrificing field position. The Bears end up with the ball past the 30-yard line on kickoffs and punts are not as deep.

Keep in mind, with all the balls being kicked to him in 2007 -- 59 in all -- he returned six for touchdowns. That's why it is imperative that you find other ways to exploit his talents, play him at wide receiver. While he may have taken some time to get comfortable at the position, Devin has become a gifted receiver with an uncanny understanding of the game. The wide receiver position is a complex one. The position requires the same skills as a quarterback when it comes to reading the defense, and he must execute the play while coordinating with the quarterback. Devin has proven that he has the ability to do all that.

So, my friend, the Beloved now have one of the best return men in the business and a receiver with game-breaking abilities. Just imagine the day when Kyle Orton and Devin Hester fully develop as a combination. Throwing the football will become more than just a passing fancy here in
Chicago: It will be expected. Bernard Berrian, the deep threat, is gone to the Vikings and we haven't seen much of Brandon Lloyd because of injury. It is clear Hester isn't just a luxury at receiver, he is indeed an essential element.


Defining Edge's Role

A day after rookie Tim Hightower ran for 109 yards in his first NFL start and former Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James was relegated to the bench without playing a down, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized James “is a valuable part of this team.”

Left unsaid was what that means on a tangible level.

Not surprisingly, most of the questions to start off Whisenhunt’s Monday press conference were about the status of the veteran James after his benching in a 34-13 win in St. Louis.

Whisenhunt said James will get chances to carry the ball and “we are going to need Edge.”

It was clear, however, that James’ most important role at this point will be insurance in case of any injury to Hightower. James does not play special teams, so when he doesn’t play running back – as in Sunday’s game – he takes up a valuable roster spot.

But even with J.J. Arrington making plays as a runner himself (62 yards on six carries against the Rams), the Cards will need James should Hightower go down. For that reason, Whisenhunt said he doesn’t see a reason James would be made inactive on game days.

Bigger picture, Whisenhunt said it’s up to the player to handle such a demotion and not let it affect the team. He pointed to the way veteran Jerome Bettis dealt with his lesser role in Pittsburgh while Whisenhunt coached there, at the point where Willie Parker became the featured back.

“A lot of that is the responsibility of the player and how he deals with it,” Whisenhunt said. “Edge has tremendous credentials, he’s been an important part of this team and he still is.

“For us to win … the thing that has to be the most important in our players’ minds is the team. I’ve seen tremendous signs of that. They understand we will need everybody.”

Of course, by the time Parker burst on the scene, Bettis was already thinking retirement and dearly wanted a Super Bowl ring first. Bettis had also been losing carries to Duce Staley or Amos Zeroue the previous few seasons.

James wants a ring, but he clearly does not see himself as at the end of his career and has been the workhorse back every year since arriving in the NFL. At the same time, James – who, like all players was off Monday and unavailable – did not sound like he was looking to undermine the team even after watching healthy from the sideline for the first time in his career.

“They can sit me down for the rest of the year,” James said after the Rams’ game. “I’ll (still) come out and go to work.”

Whisenhunt repeated a couple of times there are situations for which James would be the best player – the coach was not specific what those would be – and cautioned Hightower had not yet “arrived.”

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley pointed out that Hightower had too many negative runs. Hightower had four such runs against the Rams for a total of 14 yards in losses.

But Hightower also had four runs of at least 15 yards (and one wiped out because of a penalty). In his 2½ seasons in Arizona, James had just 14 runs of at least 15 yards (in 769 rushing attempts). Ultimately, that bigger-play ability put Hightower into the lineup – and got James removed.

“I believe guys are given opportunities when they earn it and you’re judging it on how they do on the field,” Whisenhunt said. “If you hold true to those decisions, by and large you will make the right decisions. That is what has guided me, guided us, since we have been here.”


McKinnie catches up after his suspension

Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has now played four games after being suspended for the first four for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy stemming from his arrest for a February incident outside a Miami nightclub, was asked if he has reached his pre-suspension form.

"Not yet," he said. "I still have some work to do, but I've got a little bit of time. But I'm getting better and I'm getting the old feeling back.

"My weight is good; I'm in good shape. It's just getting my confidence back because I haven't been here for a little bit. So certain things I do, I probably lack a little confidence in, but I'm getting it back slowly. I'm just going to continue my progress and work to get better each game."

McKinnie said he hasn't heard anything about the date for his court hearing.

McKinnie is determined not to get in any more trouble. The last problem cost him $746,000, and he might be out of football if he gets into trouble again.


Jennings wilting in Seattle Seahawks' secondary

Twenty-five-year-old Kelly Jennings was Wilson this time last season: a second-year player who had moved into the starting lineup and improved each week. Those days seem so far away now.

Since Jennings got demoted to the role of Wilson's backup, he's trying not to let his confidence waver.

"You've just got to let it go," he said of the negative energy that comes with losing a starting job. "It's tough to let it go because you want to be good, and if you're not, you feel like you're letting people down. But if you hold on to that, you'll never get back to where you need to be."

Seahawks fans have seen how confidence can affect a players' career -- both good and bad. While former first-round pick Marcus Trufant gained so much confidence early last year that he went on to have a Pro Bowl season, former starting safety Michael Boulware lost so much confidence during his third season in Seattle that he eventually got shipped out of town.

Confidence, at the defensive back position more than any other, can be the fine line that separates the Pro Bowler from the unemployed.

"As a defensive back, you have to be able to brush things off very quickly," Seahawks safety Brian Russell said. "There comes a time when every defensive back gives up a play. You've got to get ready for the next play because if you let it linger in your mind, it's going to get ugly for you."

While teammates say that confidence has been a big part of Wilson's emergence, they claim that Jennings has shown no signs of losing his. Even after the third-year player missed a tackle to help set up the Philadelphia Eagles' second touchdown last Sunday, Jennings kept his head high.

"Kell, his confidence level is there," safety Deon Grant said. "He's just real quiet, so when people see his demeanor, they think his confidence level might not be high. It's high; he's just a quiet dude."

Defensive coordinator John Marshall said he hasn't noticed any change in Jennings's psyche.

"He's not in the tank or anything like that," Marshall said. "He's very workmanlike about what he's doing. But I didn't ask him about how he's feeling or anything -- because I was afraid he'd tell me."

Defensive back Jordan Babineaux is among the players who have rushed to Jennings's defense this season. When reporters descended on Jennings' locker after the benching, Babineaux tried to shoo them away.

It brought back memories of a postgame locker room incident in 2006, when Babineaux barked at reporters who had surrounded Boulware's locker minutes after the safety had given up a game-winning touchdown pass against San Diego.

Babineaux did not want to compare the situations, and he added that he isn't trying to single Jennings out.

"At this point right now, being in the situation we're in, we could all use a little uplift," Babineaux said this week.

Jennings started 20 of Seattle's past 22 games -- a concussion relegated him to a lesser role in the Oct. 5 game against the New York Giants -- before officially losing his starting job on Oct. 12. He had given up too many long passes, including two touchdowns, in the first four games of this season.

This week, Jennings said that demotion came as no surprise.


Tau took Hite

For one month Robert Hite will wear the vest of Tau and will replace the wounded Pete Mickeal. The American guard is 24 years old and his hight counts 1,88 m. He was preparing for the Sans but at the end he didn’t accomplish to sign a contract.

The player at the college of Miami had mean 14.2 points and 4.6 rebounds, while last year with Galatasarai in 26 games in Turkey had mean 9.7 points and 4.1 rebounds.


Phillips adding new vigor to Giants' secondary

The New York Giants' Kenny Phillips is not afraid to aim high. He chose uniform number 21 with the hope of emulating the on-field accomplishments of late Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor.

"I respected the way he played," Phillips says, "and I respected him as a person." Taylor was shot to death last November during a break-in at his Miami-Dade home.

Phillips is wearing Taylor's number well. The 31st overall pick has been a steady contributor for the defending Super Bowl champions, who are riding high at 7-1 after a 35-14 pounding of the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. And his first career interception was a big one, helping the Giants to a 21-14 victory in Pittsburgh in Week 8.


• Hometown: Miami

• Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 197

• College highlights: Made 33 starts in three seasons at Miami. His 203 tackles included 133 solo shots and 15 stops for losses. He also made one fumble recovery and forced three fumbles to go with seven interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Fourth Hurricanes safety drafted in the opening round this decade, following Ed Reed, Taylor and Brandon Meriweather.

• Scouting report: Looks to have everything necessary to develop into top-level safety. Covers a great deal of ground. Relishes opportunity to level ballcarriers with huge hits. Coaches had to constantly remind him during training camp to refrain from taking shots at teammates. Willing to do whatever is needed to stuff the run.

• Quotable: "He makes his share of mistakes, but we never complain about guys who play fast and make mistakes and Kenny does that. He plays fast and he's been making some big plays and hopefully he continues to do that." —Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo


• I knew I was in the NFL: "The first game of the season (against Washington), when we ran out of the tunnel and hearing the crowd screaming and seeing the guys all excited. I said to myself, 'This is what I've been waiting for.' "

• Biggest adjustment: "Learning the scheme defensively. There is a lot of detail I need to get down."

• Best advice: "A lot of guys in the secondary have been telling me, 'It's a long season. Get your massages. Eat right. Take care of your body.' "

• First purchase after signing: "I bought my mother (Taranda Wilson) a black Mercedes Benz for her birthday. She was shocked."

• Role model: "Ed Reed is one of the guys I really admire. I watched him at Miami and with me going to Miami, I keep in touch with him. I can call him up and ask him about anything and he'll have the perfect answer."

• Favorite off-field activity: "Bowling. I'm not really good, but I'm working on it. My high score is 140- or 150-something."

• Can Giants repeat? "I definitely think so. Even though the guys have one ring, I can tell they are still hungry for another one. I'm going to do my best to help them get it."

• NFL dream: "Ten interceptions, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl."

Taylor to be inducted posthumously by Redskins

ASHBURN, Va. -- Safety Sean Taylor will take his place among Washington Redskins greats when he is inducted posthumously into the franchise's Ring of Fame before the Nov. 30 game against the New York Giants.

The ceremony will precede the Redskins' 1 p.m. ET kickoff against the Giants, the first game following the one-year anniversary of Taylor's slaying at age 24.

Taylor died of massive blood loss after he was shot at his Miami-area home last Nov. 27 during a botched robbery.

Venjah Hunte, one of five suspects charged in the slaying, will serve 29 years in prison and cooperate with prosecutors after pleading guilty to charges of second-degree murder and burglary.

"It's appropriate that Sean joins our Ring of Fame after a stellar career cut short far too soon," owner Dan Snyder said in a statement. "His life touched so many of us in such deep and lasting ways. His presence is all around us, in our organization and among our fans."

A two-time Pro Bowl safety, Taylor played four seasons with the Redskins after Washington selected him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2004 draft.

Taylor will become the 43rd name on the Ring of Fame, which honors those who have made distinguished contributions to the Redskins. The ceremony will feature a tribute to Taylor, messages from former teammates and a presentation of a plaque to members of Taylor's family.


Joseph returns

The Raiders added a second player who wasn’t good enough to make the 53-man roster out of training camp, with defensive tackle William Joseph returning after being cut on Aug. 30.

Joseph adds some bulk to a Raiders defensive front which was shredded for 252 yards on 57 carries against Atlanta and has surrendered 177 yards per game over the last four games.

The former first-round pick of the New York Giants was with the team as they began practice, wearing No. 96, as were cornerback Michael Waddell (No. 32) and linebacker Marquice Cooper (No. 95).


Williams out for weeks

The NFL Network reports that Broncos WLB D.J. Williams will miss the next four weeks with his MCL injury.

It sounds like Williams tore his MCL. Rookie Wesley Woodyard (6'1/212), who some teams viewed as a safety prospect coming out in April, is highly unlikely to be as potent against the run as Williams (6'1/242). The Browns should be able to run off LT Joe Thomas' back all game Thursday night.


Edge sits because Hightower fits

It would be a mistake to believe the benching of Cardinals running back Edgerrin James last week was a direct result of James' recent expressions of frustration over his diminishing role.

Although his comments didn't endear James to anyone in the organization, they weren't inflammatory enough by themselves to keep him standing on the sideline, healthy, for the first time in his career. It was, instead, a confluence of many factors that brought James and the Cardinals to this point.

The reasons for the benching can be traced to 2007, when Ken Whisenhunt was named head coach of the Cardinals, a season after the team signed James to four-year, $30 million deal.

Part of the reason for signing James was to sell tickets in the opening season of University of Phoenix Stadium. But no one is saying that James didn't play hard and produce with the Cardinals. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, the first Cardinals back to do that since Ottis Anderson in 1983-84.

But it was telling that as soon as the season ended, the Cardinals talked about the need to add a running back with big-play ability. In 2½ years with the team, James' longest run is 27 yards and he's had only four runs that have gained more than 20 yards.

So the Cardinals drafted Tim Hightower out of Richmond in the fifth round, and it was obvious from his first practice that his skills were much different from those of James. Vision and agility are James' strengths. He has an instinct for finding creases in the defense and he rarely loses yards.

Hightower is a powerful runner who makes quick, decisive cuts and explodes through a hole. Those attributes are a nice fit for this offense, so it seemed only a matter of time before Hightower began to take carries away from James.

James' personality played a part in losing the job, too. Not that he's a bad influence in the locker room. He's liked by his teammates and he has been selfless in mentoring Hightower in the nuances of the NFL, from how to take care of his body to how to watch video of opponents.

But James hasn't been a team leader, either. As he said Sunday, he is not a "yes man," and he's often gone his own way. He never wanted to be a team captain, and he valued his independence when it came to decisions on working out at the team facility in the off-season or attending voluntary workouts.

The fact that James missed the only practice during the recent off week didn't go unnoticed, either.

So it wasn't a few comments in a few interviews that sent James to the bench. It was a culmination of factors, with one being the most important: This Hightower kid could be pretty good.


Phillies unlikely to re-sign Burrell

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Phillies' lack of recent contact with Pat Burrell's agents is "another indication that the left fielder is unlikely to re-sign with the team."

However, agent Ed Hayes said Tuesday that Burrell would prefer to remain in Philadelphia. "He loves it here," Hayes said. "He loves the fans. He loves playing here. He thinks this team has an opportunity to win for many, many years. And he'd love to stay. His primary goal is to stay here, but we'll see what the Phillies have in mind."


NFLU Week 9 Video Highlights

Check out the return of our NFL U Video Highlights. Like we did back in 2006, will provide our fans every week video highlights of all of our NFL U stars along with pictures from the current NFL Week. Click here to check out our Week 9 Video Highlights or click above on NFL U Video Highlights. Enjoy this week's highlights which feature an INT by Antrel Rolle, a TD by Andre Johnson and more!

NFLU Week 9 Photos

Check out Week 9 photos from around the the NFL of our proCanes. Click here to see the photos.


Ray Lewis isn’t going anywhere when the 2008 season comes to a close.

Since starting the season WITHOUT a contract for 2009 and beyond, there has been speculation in Baltimore that #52 might be on his way out…as the team defers to a younger (and cheaper) linebacking corps headed by Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott.

It’s not gonna happen that way.

Ray’s staying.  And he’ll eventually wind up inking a 5-year deal that will help the team fork over a mammoth signing bonus and yet not strap the team salary-cap wise through 2013.

As for Suggs and Scott…who knows, they MIGHT stay too.

But if there’s a pecking order - and make no mistake about it, there IS - you can rest assured that Ray is at the front.

A Ravens official confirmed all of this with me earlier this week by saying, “Ray’s going to be in Baltimore next year and for a while after that…it’s been discussed and reviewed and nothing has changed in our mind. Ray is going to be here and he’s going to finish his career in purple.  We know the numbers, financially, and we’re going to make them work.”

Makes sense to me.

He’s been so good for so long they should just permanently re-name the team the “Ray-vens”.

And this year, in particular, he’s ramped up his game and geared down his talk.  Gone are the days when Ray would throw out cryptic hints about money, his future and the possibilities of having to do business elsewhere.

I guess the promise of a $16 million dollar signing bonus can make a man see things a bit more clearly, huh?  

As one Ravens’ staffer said, succinctly: “Ray’s value to us is much higher than it would be with any other team in the league.”  Agreed.  He’s been to this franchise what Johnny Unitas was to the old Colts franchise. 

None of this should come as much of a surprise.  Owner Steve Bisciotti has talked openly - in interviews with Baltimore newspaper and radio - of hoping to sign Ray to a long-term deal that would keep #52 in purple and reward him for the decade-plus work he’s done in Baltimore.  

Ray deserves every penny of whatever he gets at the end of this season.

He’s the best player in the history of the franchise and arguably the best player in the league since 1996.

As for Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott, it’s a shame their paydays might be diminished by Ray’s deal, but that’s the price you pay when you’re working in concert with a Hall of Famer.  In the end, though, both of those players will make a nice salary in 2009 and beyond in large part BECAUSE of #52, not in spite of him.

“Ray’s not going anywhere…” was another comment offered to me.  ”We want him to finish his career in Baltimore and Ray wants to finish here too.  And we think Ray still has a lot of good football left - and so does he.  Ray’s going to retire a Raven, plain and simple.”

The status of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement and the potential for an uncapped season in 2011 makes it even more difficult for teams to enter into long term contracts with players right now…but the Ravens want Ray Lewis and Ray, well - Ray wants to get paid…in Baltimore.  Barring a change in heart by either party, you can keep those #52 jerseys clean and break ‘em out every September for the next few years.

I’m glad that issue has been put to rest.

Now, back to the playoff hunt.


Cards safety Rolle gets NFC player of week honor

Cardinals' free safety Antrel Rolle was named the "NFC Defensive Player of the Week" Tuesday after his performance in Sunday's victory over St. Louis.

Rolle registered four tackles and also returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown against the Rams.

The "pick six" was the fourth of Rolle's career, and the touchdown got the Cards on the scoreboard in a game they went on to win 34-13.

This is the third time Rolle has received the award - after receiving it twice last season - and he is the third Cardinal to be selected as a Player of the Week this season (Kurt Warner, Sean Morey).


Brown Returns

The Jets signed defensive end Kareem Brown to the practice squad. Brown was waived by the Jets Nov. 1 to open a roster spot for linebacker Jason Trusnik, who was activated from the PUP list. Brown was inactive for the first seven games this season, but he did show promise in the preseason, when he was fourth on the team with 12 tackles (nine solo) and recorded one sack. Brown, a two-year veteran who was originally claimed off waivers from the Patriots, Nov. 29, 2007, appeared in one game for the Jets last season.

To open a spot for Brown on the practice squad, the Jets released tight end Brad Listorti. Listorti was signed to the Jets’ practice squad Sept. 10, was released on Sept. 23 and re-signed on Oct. 21.


Changing of the Guards

Week Nine was one of those changing-of-the-guard weeks that occur every so often, with a bunch of relatively anonymous players having breakthrough performances and several established veterans finding themselves unofficially marginalized. Here’s a look at five established vets who reached the end of the road this past weekend.

1. Edgerrin James — It seemed inevitable that Tim Hightower would take over as the Cardinals’ lead back at some point this season. The rookie had been making the most of the half-dozen or so touches he’d been getting each game, and James was getting fewer and fewer carries as the season progressed. But the passing of the torch came abruptly in Week Nine, when James stood idling on the sideline while Hightower carried 22 times for 109 yards and a TD. James never quite met expectations with the Cardinals after his amazing seven-year run with the Colts. The Edge is gaining 3.5 yards per carry this season and has never gained 4.0 yards per carry during any of his seasons in Arizona after averaging at least 4.0 in six of his seven years with Indianapolis. Hightower had a 30-yard TD run against the Rams on Sunday; in 2½ seasons with the Cardinals, James has a long run of 27 yards. Now it appears that his long run as a valuable fantasy contributor is over.

2. Willis McGahee — A bad ankle sidelined McGahee during the Ravens’ Week Nine win over the Browns, but the play of rookie Ray Rice could keep McGahee sidelined in the weeks to come. McGahee has been hindered by injuries all year, which might be part of the reason why he’s gaining only 3.5 yards per carry. He ran for 105 yards in Week Seven and finished the month of October by running for TDs in consecutive games, but there have been warning signs lately, including an eight-carry, 18-yard performance against a bad Indianapolis run defense in Week Six and a per-carry average of 2.5 yards against the hapless Raiders in Week Eight. Rice and Le’Ron McClain both have run well for the Ravens this season, and Rice’s 154-yard performance against the Browns was an eye-opener. McGahee simply hasn’t been that effective this season, and with the 5-3 Ravens in the thick of the playoff chase, it’s a good bet that head coach John Harbaugh will use his best runner(s) rather than stubbornly sticking with the high-salary guy.


Edge Peeved at New Role

The Arizona Republic reports though he fully supports RB Tim Hightower, Cardinals RB Edgerrin James privately is peeved about his new role - as a potential Hall of Fame player being phased out of the equation and likely being released after this season. Cardinals HC Ken Whisenhunt, when pressed Monday about the running-back controversy on his 5-3 team, said it is his hope that James responds like RB Jerome Bettis did in Pittsburgh when the Steelers were getting ready to unleash RB Willie Parker. James wasn't available for comment Monday, as Whisenhunt gave the team the day off. But after Sunday's game, James said the decision to not play him "was personal." And therein lies the difference between him and Bettis. Three years ago, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, Bettis already had decided he was going to retire and make way for Parker. But James, who is under contract with the Cardinals for another year, says he is nowhere near done playing. Whisenhunt said for the Cardinals to reach the playoffs, "the thing that has to be the most important in our players' mind is the team, and I see tremendous signs of that with our football team." Yes, but does he see that from Edgerrin James? "I have no indication otherwise," Whisenhunt responded.


Devin Hester not delivering on returns

As long as a search party already is looking for Brian Urlacher, would it be too much to ask that it keep an eye out for Devin Hester?

Remember the off-season howls from fans and media that Hester deserved a big, fat contract extension because it was sooooooo obvious he should be paid like a No. 1 receiver? Those howls were based on the idea that his wizardry as a kick returner was transferable to the wide receiver position.

Say this about the Bears: They might not always be right about personnel decisions, but they were right to sign Hester to a deal that was so heavy on incentives he needed a forklift to take it home. And for those of you who thought it was an outrage that this incredible athlete be deprived of more millions up front, now you know why the Bears showed restraint.

The rush to involve Hester as a receiver this season has been a disaster—not so much for the offense, though that has been a big disappointment, but for special teams. The guy who once struck fear in the hearts of opponents on every return now spends his time catching a punt or kickoff, putting his head down and running straight into a pile.

The Devin Hester who saw holes and seams that few other players could see is nowhere to be found. The man with the lightning speed is missing.

There's a dreadlocked impostor out there pretending to be Hester, but it can't be him. This Devin Hester looks human. Opponents who in previous years wouldn't have been able to lay a finger on him now are tackling him easily.

It doesn't take a degree in molecular biology to figure it out. He's a house divided. And as everyone knows, a house divided cannot take it to the house.

Given that his touchdown returns were the difference in more than a few games in his first two seasons, and given that he has had no impact on offense this season, now would be a good time to tell him to concentrate on what he does best.

"Concentrate" is the key word. It's clear that Hester doesn't consider his main occupation to be kick returner anymore. He's putting his thoughts and energy into being a receiver, and it's apparent even that has been overwhelming for him. He has too much on his plates, plural.

It's not all his fault. The Bears clearly haven't put him in the best position to succeed on offense.

I'm not suggesting they completely take away his receiving responsibilities. I'm suggesting they simplify things for him, lighten his load and specifically throw him short passes to allow him to make something happen after the catch.


Whisenhunt: James still 'valuable part of this team’

Edgerrin James still has a role with the Cardinals. But while coach Ken Whisenhunt made this point clear on Monday, he didn’t exactly define what that role will be, other than he will back up Tim Hightower, the team’s new starting running back.

James, the No. 13 rusher in NFL history, sat out Sunday’s win at St. Louis entirely while Hightower made a smashing debut with 109 yards.

“Edge” speculated afterward he was benched because he wasn’t a “yes man.” He had previously lobbied publicly for a bigger role in the offense.

James is still “a valuable part of this team,” Whisenhunt said.

Whisenhunt didn’t spell out if James would play in all future games. But he said, “He’s a good running back. When the opportunity presents itself, he’ll get chances to carry the ball. We’re going to need Edge.”

The coach indicated James will be on the active roster for games, saying, “I would hate to think if, God forbid, something would happen to Tim in a game, it would be nice to have Edge available to carry the ball.”

“Just like we’ve done all year, Tim has gotten carries, J.J. (Arrington) has gotten carries, as well as Edge. We’ve used backs in situations that give us the best chance to win.”

Whisenhunt said he’s “excited” to see Hightower’s progress. But he reminded everyone not to get carried away by one big game.

“We have to see over time in order to say Tim has arrived, as a lot of people want to say based on one game. ...

“Let’s be very clear about this: The reason he played is because he worked hard and earned the opportunity to play and has shown in games he can pick up blitzes, that he could do a good job running with the football, that he’s a receiver coming out of the backfield.

“We wouldn’t have put him in there if we didn’t feel like he was going to have a chance to be successful and give us the best chance to win.”

Hightower seems to be in the mold of his coach, a guy who supposedly has limited physical tools (he was ignored by the NFL draft combine) but is a hard-working overachiever.

Whisenhunt pointed to several other young Cardinals who seem to have the same approach, including Steve Breaston, Calais Campbell and Ali Highsmith.

“That’s the type of attitude we’ve tried to instill, that’s the kind of environment we’ve tried to foster.

“Is Tim part of that? Absolutely. He does have that attitude.

“I don’t know if you can relate that to me, but ... yes, Tim has those qualities.”


Starting running back: Rice or McGahee?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn't name his starting running back for Sunday's game at the Houston Texans.

The pecking order in the backfield became more clouded after rookie second-round pick Ray Rice filled in for injured Willis McGahee and ran for 154 yards in Sunday's 37-27 win at the Cleveland Browns.

So, should the Ravens go with experience and start McGahee? Or should they stick with the hotter runner and start Rice?

"I don't know if we know going into the game," Harbaugh said at today's news conference. "We'll find out who is going to play more based on how we match up against this football team. Certainly, Ray has expanded himself with the things he can do and the confidence he builds in the coaching staff."

Harbaugh said the Ravens don't think of the situation as McGahee or Rice. They envision their running game as McGahee and Rice.

"We're going to play all those guys," Harbaugh said.

McGahee suited up Sunday but didn't play one snap. He is battling injuries to his knee, ankle and ribs, Harbaugh said.

But McGahee is expected to play Sunday at Houston.

"I think the fact that he didn't play in this game really helped him for next week," Harbaugh said. "He should be full-go for next week."

In addition to the return of McGahee, the Ravens expect cornerback Samari Rolle to come back. Rolle has missed the past six games with a neck injury.

"The neck is sound," Harbaugh said. "He's got 100 percent of his strength back. He's going to be in a little bit of a collar. I think when he gets that first shot, he's going to be re-assured that he's going to be fine. But until you get that first shot, you're not re-assured."


Feagles hits the wire

Punter Jeff Feagles said his punt that came after the offsides penalty hit the cable that controls the remote overhead camera. He said he was aiming for the sideline with it -- Feagles is one of the best ever at that -- and all of a sudden the ball started fluttering. He still wound up with a 44-yarder, but it was in the middle of the field and dangerously returnable. We'll do some digging and see if there are NFL rules pertaining to that kind of interference. Feagles said it happens sometimes in warmups, but this is the first time it's happened to him in a game.


Minutes: Beason's big honor

CHARLOTTE -- After a strong rookie season, it seemed that the only variable separating linebacker Jon Beason from individual accolades was time.

That time came Monday when he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, giving him the first league-bestowed honor of his career and making him the Panthers' first player of the month on offense, defense or special teams since defensive end Julius Peppers was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October 2006.

Beason is Carolina's leading tackler this season with 64 total stops.  Thirty-two of his tackles came in the last four games, which also saw him intercept a pair of passes -- one against Kansas City and another in the Panthers' 27-23 win over Arizona to close the month.

The pick against Arizona helped seal the award for Beason; it came at the Carolina 5-yard-line on a pass that skipped off the hands of Cardinals running back J.J. Arrington.  Beason promptly fielded the football and dashed 44 yards up the sideline to the Panthers' 49-yard-line.  The subsequent good field position meant that the Panthers needed just one first down to set John Kasay up in field-goal range; five plays later Kasay hit the 50-yard field goal that punctuated a swing of at least six points.

Beason is in elite company as one of just four Panthers to ever earn Defensive Player of the Month accolades.  The others are linebacker Sam Mills (Nov. 1995, Nov. 1996), Peppers (Oct. 2002, Nov. 2004, Oct. 2006) and defensive end Mike Rucker (Sept. 2002).


Redskins' Portis should be leading MVP race

Everybody is raving about Saints quarterback Drew Brees being the midseason choice as the league's MVP. I have a vote, and Washington running back Clinton Portis has mine right now. Yes, Brees has a shot at breaking Dan Marino's single-season yardage mark, but there's more to winning this award than stats.

The Saints are an exciting team, but are hovering around .500 and might miss the playoffs. The Redskins, like the Titans, are one of the season's shockers so far. And, no one, including a no-interception-throwing Jason Campbell or first-year coach Jim Zorn, has done more for Washington's 6-2 record than Portis.

Granted, Portis can be viewed as a diva — an unflattering term generally reserved for quarterbacks and receivers — but he has produced consistently this season.

Heck, Monday night against the Steelers, Portis will shoot for his sixth straight game with at least 120 yards rushing, potentially tying a streak accomplished by the Rams' Eric Dickerson in his famous 1984 season.

Heading into Week 9, Portis led the NFL with 944 yards rushing with seven touchdowns and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average. He was also the leader in first downs, with 52, two more than Mr. Cowboy, Marion Barber.

Portis can be a hothead and that's why Broncos coach Mike Shanahan traded him to Washington in exchange for stud cornerback Champ Bailey. But no one can argue with his production and physical toughness. Portis runs hard inside and he has the burst to bounce outside for long gains. On the field, you can count on Portis to deliver.

Now, he can be a bit of a problem child. Granted, he's no angel like Barry Sanders was for the Lions. His pride can get in the way of the team, but I sense that he's learning his lessons this year.

A few games back, Zorn allowed Portis to call a game-changing play in the fourth quarter. Of course, last week Zorn and Portis had a heated sideline exchange when the coach kept backup Shaun Alexander in the game. Basically, Zorn didn't like Portis running onto the field once his helmet was fixed, simply doing as he pleases.

Portis called the incident a miscommunication. "I take it personally and I shouldn't have," he said. "I have to [be] accountable to my teammates. It was blown out of proportion. Coach was excited and I was excited."

It may seem tame on television, but an NFL sideline can be a confusing place, especially for a new head coach. Zorn was told by running backs coach Stump Mitchell that Portis was ready to go. He figured Portis was in the huddle and called a play for him. Instead, Alexander was running with the ball. Zorn said he was surprised to see that. Then, Portis ran on to the field and when Zorn saw that, he took him out of the game. Zorn explained that he didn't want any of his players thinking they can go on the field whenever they feel like it.

That's when the argument ensued.

Bottom line is that Zorn did want Portis on the field. It's just that he wasn't ready when he was supposed to be. So, what's wrong with him going out there when he was ready?

Yes, Zorn and Portis are still sorting out the bugs in their football relationship. It makes for great Sunday television. But the bottom line is that right now, Portis is playing at an MVP level. If he keeps it up, the Redskins should be in the playoffs and Zorn will be competing with coaches like Jeff Fisher, Dick Jauron and Mike Smith for Coach of the Year.


Good Guy of the Week

Kelly, who never could get the Bills over the Super Bowl hump in his Hall of Fame career, has a new mission these days -- to get every state to test for 54 potentially fatal diseases that could be diagnosed at birth. Only one state, Minnesota, tests for that many today.

He's on this mission because of the death of his son, Hunter, in 2005, from a rare brain disease called Krabbe Leukodystrophy. The disease (leukodystrophies afflict one of every 100,000 American births) could have been diagnosed at birth, but New York State did not test for the illness when Hunter was born in 1997.

"The tragedy for Hunter, and for so many children born with fatal illnesses, is that they're simply born in the wrong state,'' Kelly said the other night. "If you don't think that's something that just tears at your heart every day ...''

I've known Kelly for a long time, and I've always found him to be one of the biggest life-of-the-party guys I've covered. He was a prolific pre-curfew beer man in his Bills training-camp years, when the Buffalo players were as tight as a team could be. But when I saw him the other day, I saw he'd changed. There was a grimness to a once-carefree guy, with more lines on his face than I remembered. The grimness is not from giving up; it's a grim determination.

He's already seen governors of three states -- New York, Pennsylvania and Kansas -- and gotten each to increase dramatically the number of diseases tested for at birth. When babies are born, their heels are pricked and a blood sample taken to test for diseases. With Kelly's lobbying, New York has increased from 11 to 44 diseases tested for, Pennsylvania from 11 to 29, and Kansas from four to 29.

Parents can buy a kit to screen their children for the maximum number of diseases for less than $100, but Kelly, and his foundation, want the tests to be done for every child as a matter of course. Considering that the costs of caring for children with one of many known leukodystrophies can run from between $500,000 and $1 million per year, it seems like early-testing money would be well spent.

"I never won a Super Bowl,'' said Kelly, "and for a long time that really bothered me, obviously. But this is real. This is life. My Super Bowl victory will be to get every state to adopt universal newborn screening so we can save lives that are now being lost needlessly. When that day comes, that victory will be 10 times better than any Super Bowl.''

Because New York now tests for Krabbe, Kelly met a perfectly healthy boy, now a year and half old, who was diagnosed at birth and successfully treated. "Little Elmer,'' he said with a grin. Now his goal is to meet a lot more Elmers. If you'd like to help, or learn more about Kelly's mission, you can go to

1st Annual Sean Taylor Classic

Greater Miami Pop Warner is pleased to rename it's yearly championship series in honor of former Miami Pop Warner scholar athlete, high school standout, University of Miami star player, and All Pro Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor

We invite you to join us at the 1st Annual Sean Taylor Classic.
This nine game event will be held at Cobb Field, on the University of Miami campus, Sat. and Sun. - Nov. 8th & 9th.
Players, age 10 - 15, on sixteen teams, will vie for the right to represent Miami Pop Warner as champions, in the regional playoffs on the road to the national Pop Warner championship games in Orlando at Walt Disney Wide World of Sports.

Cobb Field is located next to the Greentree practice facility and behind Mark Light Field at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. Gates will open one hour before the first games. Admission is $7.00 adults and $3.00 children age 5 - 15. No re-entry. Food, drinks, or coolers are not permitted. Concessions will be available.

Join us and help make the inaugural Sean Taylor Classic a memorable event!

Johnson harassed

Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson put together one of the best months in NFL history in October.

But November started slowly against the Vikings.

With former Longhorn Cedric Griffin constantly on top of Johnson, the Texans’ top receiver finished with just four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.

“I guess their coach just told them, ‘Just beat him up,’” Johnson said. “At the line, I got thrown down a couple of times.

“It was one of my more difficult games. I think they did a great job. I think they had a good game plan.

“It kind of got me a bit frustrated. And when you get frustrated, it kind of has an effect on your game a little bit.”

The Vikings often had two players covering Johnson, who didn’t make his first catch until midway through the second quarter.

“They played us in a ton of 2-deep — a very aggressive cover-2,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “They jammed him at the line of scrimmage. We did a little bit of everything, but give them credit. They did a good job and rushed the passer really well.”


Broncos LB Williams injures MCL on tackle

DENVER (Map, News) - The already hurting Denver Broncos defense suffered another serious injury Sunday.

Weak-side linebacker and captain D.J. Williams went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter of Denver's 26-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The injury happened as Williams tackled running back Ronnie Brown on a screen play.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said Williams injured the MCL in his knee. Shanahan indicated he didn't expect the linebacker to play Thursday in Cleveland.

"I can't give you a timeframe, but it will be a little while," Shanahan said.


Hester not quite as electric for Bears this year

This was the game in which many Bear watchers expected Devin Hester to make a significant impact on the outcome.

They were right, but not nearly the way many envisioned Hester affecting the Bears' 27-23 victory over the Lions.

Hester fumbled a kickoff return with 13 minutes 21 seconds left in the second quarter that Lions linebacker Alex Lewis forced and recovered. One play later Detroit scored on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Dan Orlovsky to Calvin Johnson to give the Lions a 13-10 lead.

Buoyed by the momentum swing Hester's turnover created, Detroit scored all 23 of their points in the second quarter — an avalanche that started with the fumble.

"It was a good play by him," Hester said. "I had the ball close to my body, and he just reached out and made a great play on it."

Lewis did, but Hester's role in the mistake capped a disappointing first half of the season for the Pro Bowl return man. He has averaged just 20.9 yards on 20 kickoff returns and 6.2 yards per punt return without a touchdown. Against the Lions, a team that had given up an 80-yard touchdown return one week earlier to Santana Moss, Hester managed just 16.3 yards per kickoff return and 10.5 yards per punt return.

Hesterized, the Lions were not.

"The things we did last year we can't do this year," Hester said. "Like I said from the beginning, it's a new group of guys [blocking]. I don't want to get into no details and start complaining, but we just have to get adjusted to ourselves and figure out which side is strength and which side is weak."

The loss of Pro Bowl special-teams player Brendon Ayanbadejo has hurt. The reputation of Hester has made the bull's-eye on his back bigger too. But the Bears object to the idea that his increased role in the offense has affected his returns, and he doesn't agree that he has become more tentative.

"I don't feel like I'm playing it safe," Hester said. "In a game situation you have to know when to protect the ball and when to hit a home run. You have to say there's no I in team, and if [a chance is] there, I'll do what I do. But if it's not there, secure the ball and do what I can."


James supports rookie after losing starting spot

ST. LOUIS - The torch has been passed at the Cardinals’ running back spot. Tim Hightower replaced Edgerrin James in the starting lineup Sunday; James had started 135 straight games in his career.

What’s more, the Cardinals went with Hightower, who ran for 109 yards, and J.J. Arrington (62 yards) in the backfield, not “Edge.”

Whisenhunt said he hadn’t planned on sitting James, the NFL’s No. 13 running back of all time, for the whole game. But with the Cardinals rolling, he stuck with what was working.

“That is just the way the game developed,” Whisenhunt said.

James, though, said, “It’s been brewing for a while. I’m not surprised. I’m happy for Tim.

“I’m supportive of him and happy for him.”

James, though he wasn’t specific, seemed to suggest his suggestion two weeks ago that he be more involved in the offense worked against him.
“I don’t fit the yes-man mode. It’s always going to come down on me.”

James, asked if his earlier comments played a role in his benching, replied, “I don’t know what it was.

“I’m not going to be a yes man. They can sit me down for the rest of the year.

“It don’t matter. I’ll come out and go to work.

After his comments, James had a subpar game at Carolina, including a lost fumble.

James said he expected High­tower to play, and, “I expected him to have a big day. We knew we should have a big day running the ball regardless of who was in there.”

James and Hightower have become friends, a relationship James said he intends to keep.

“I’m not gong to let somebody come between me and Tim. That’s just how I am.

“When this is all over, I’ll still be friends with Tim. That’s more important.”

James and Hightower stood near each other during the game, with the veteran giving the rookie advice.

“I’m going to help him as much as I can. Tim is going to be all right.”

Hightower praised James:

“Edge prepared me all week. He helped me to know what to look for and kind of calmed me down. He stayed with me all game and helped me out.”


Patriots' DVD saved DT Wilfork from suspension by NFL

Commissioner Roger Goodell was poised to suspend New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork due to his previous illegal hits over the past two seasons, but a DVD from the Patriots' video department saved him from at least a forced week off this season, league sources told ESPN.

Wilfork's wife Bianca, who joined Wilfork for the meeting, handed Goodell the DVD with a different camera angle that showed Wilfork may not have hit Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in the head on a play in the Oct. 20 meeting between the Broncos and Patriots.

On the alternate DVD, Cutler could be seen picking himself up and patting Wilfork on the helmet after the play.

Wilfork started his meeting with Goodell admitting a hit to Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman last season was a cheap shot, but when the commissioner started to to review the alleged late hit on Cutler, Wilfork's wife handed the commissioner the new DVD.

Wilfork was fined $35,000 but not suspended. Vince and Bianca Wilfork wrote a thank you letter to Goodell at the end of the week.

A league official maintains there was no clarity on either tape as to whether Wilfork hit Cutler in the head.


Edgerrin James: Goes Without a Single Touch Against Rams

Though there was no announced starting lineup change before the game, James was benched in favor of Tim Hightower on Sunday, the Arizona Republic reports. James did not receive a single touch all game, while Hightower surpassed 100 yards off 22 carries. J.J. Arrington was used as the Cardinals' second back, gaining 62 yards off six carries and adding five receptions for 57 yards.

At this point, there have been no reports that James was banged up. There is also nothing that has surfaced that would lead to the conclusion that James' lack of action was the result of any disciplinary action from the team, so the fact that he went without a single touch on Sunday is a bit baffling. More light on this situation is sure to be shed over the next few days but, for the time being, James' value has taken an enormous hit. He's no longer startable in leagues of any size or format.


Kelly Jennings Not Playing Well

Kelly Jennings' decline, however, was not. Jennings did a good job last year for the Seahawks, but this year he has been unacceptably bad, so much so that he lost his starting spot. Surprising for a third year player. His replacement, Wilson, took some time to adjust, and had a few bad games, but has started to play well.


Adaptable LB Williams shines amid Broncos' porous defense

Sources in Denver say Broncos WLB D.J. Williams is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but it’s been overshadowed by the defense’s dreadful performance. This year Williams moved to his third position in the LB corps in as many seasons, shifting from the middle to the weak side, but he hasn’t let the constant shuffling affect him. 


Phillips not fined for hit on Steelers' Moore

Remember that controversial hit that Kenny Phillips laid on Mewelde Moore last Sunday after the Steelers running back dropped a pass down the sidelines? Well, for those of you who believe the call was unjust, here’s a little more evidence to support your argument:

Phillips was not fined.

That’s not exactly an admission by the league that the call was an error, but I’m pretty sure if the league thought it was really unneccessary roughness, the Giants’ rookie safety would’ve been slapped with at least a $5,000 fine - especially since he hit Moore in the head and, in my view, appeared to launch himself after the drop. But a league spokesman confirmed that Phillips’ paycheck will remain intact, despite the 15-yard penalty he incurred.


Jets waive Kareem Brown

The Jets released defensive end Kareem Brown, a player who made very little impact in game action this year.

Oh wait a minute, he was never active.

He looked good in preseason games, but was inactive for every game this season.

The Jets released Brown to make room for linebacker Jason Trusnik, who they activated from the PUP list.


Moss optimistic he'll play

Receiver Santana Moss was the life of the locker room after Saturday's practice. That's a good sign for the Washington Redskins heading into Monday night's game against Pittsburgh.

After running on the side during Saturday's session, Moss sounded optimistic about his chances of playing against the Steelers despite an ailing hamstring, which he injured after scoring both of Washington's touchdowns in last week's 25-17 victory at Detroit.

"I feel better because I ran [Saturday]," said Moss, who battled hamstring pulls for most of 2007. "I felt pretty good. I ... gained a lot of confidence [in my hamstring] because I didn't know where it was at. The next step is [running some] routes [Sunday]."

Coach Jim Zorn said, despite his progress, Moss' availability against the Steelers will be a game-time decision. Zorn said the only other player whose status is in doubt is Chris Samuels, but the Pro Bowl left tackle, whose absence against the Lions was his first in nearly five years, said he's going to play despite his hurting right knee.


Hester hopes to begin birthday celebration in end zone

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – You can't buy what Devin Hester wants most for his birthday at any store. But it could be delivered Sunday at Soldier Field when the Bears host the Detroit Lions.

The two-time All Pro is still seeking his first kick return touchdown of the season after breaking the NFL record in each of his first two years with five scores in 2005 and six in 2006.

“That would probably be the best birthday gift I got,” said Hester, who will turn 26 on Tuesday.

In six games this season—he sat out a loss to Tampa Bay Sept. 21 with a rib injury—the dynamic playmaker ranks 21st in the NFL in punt returns with an average of 5.4 yards. 

Hester, however, has only had 11 punt returns after having 20 at this point last year. In his first two seasons, he scored seven TDs on 89 returns, a ratio of one TD for every 12.7 returns.

Hester is 27th in the league in kickoff returns with a 22.1-yard average, though his presence alone has caused opponents to employ squib and bloop kicks, which have routinely resulted in excellent field position. The Bears rank first in the NFC and fourth in the NFL with an average starting field position after kickoffs at their own 29.3-yard line.

Hester, though, still wants to get into the end zone.

“I put all the pressure on myself and say that it is kind of my fault that the return game is not the way it was,” Hester said. “At the end of the day, I’m the one with the ball in my hands. I have to be the one to figure it out and pick up the slack.

“If something breaks down, that’s why they rely on me. I have to be the one to step up and make big plays. It hasn’t been the way it’s been, so I take some of the blame for it.”

While coaches appreciate the accountability from their young superstar, they also stress that the return game is a team effort that involves all 11 players on the field.

“He assumes he is going to score every time he touches the football,” said coach Lovie Smith. “I can see why a guy like that would think that way, but it has been a lot more than just Devin. We need to do some things to help him out—mainly block better—to give him more opportunities.

“It’s just a matter of time. The second half of the season, Devin like the rest of our football team can make a lot of improvement, and I expect that to happen.”

Smith acknowledged that Hester’s unprecedented success in his first two seasons probably created some unrealistic expectations.

“We had never seen anything like it before,” said the Bears coach. “Now after seven games he hasn’t scored seven times and we’re kind of wondering what is going on. But there is a lot of football left to go. We need Devin—just like the rest of our players—to step up, and he will.”

Hester has emerged as a regular contributor on offense with 18 receptions for 215 yards and 2 TDs. But he doesn’t believe that his development as a receiver has hindered his return ability.

“To be honest, I’m not tired when it’s time to return kickoffs and punts, so I wouldn’t say that’s a reason,” Hester said. “But I do know I have to get better and what I’m capable of doing.”


Pirates decline option on Michaels

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Pirates have declined their $2.6 million 2009 option on outfielder Jason Michaels.

The 32-year-old does not get a buyout. Michaels batted .271 last season.

He was drafted in 1994, 1996, and 1997, but did not sign, before he was selected by Philadelphia in 1998. He stayed with the Phillies through 2005 and then went to the Cleveland Indians before being traded to Pittsburgh on May 9. He has a career batting average of .224.