Ravens' Reed ultimate 'center fielder'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Here is something you didn't know about Ed Reed: He'd like to give baseball a try.

And he's serious about it.

"I'm a professional player right now," the Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl safety said. "I feel like -- not that I'll be better than [Michael Jordan] -- but with a little practice, I definitely could be effective in the outfield, stealing some bases and pinch-hitting."

Here is another little-known tidbit: Reed was an awful quarterback at Destrehan High School in Louisiana.

"I threw more interceptions than I caught … I had like four interceptions in one game," he said with a deadpan expression.

Want to know more? Reed's favorite NFL player is Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

"We play the same position," Reed said. "I know Troy personally, we've talked about it, and I know he's working hard to do what he does on Sunday."

This is a peek behind the curtain of one of the NFL's most low-key superstars, a game changer who will lead the Ravens into an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday against the Tennessee Titans. In just seven NFL seasons, Reed already has 43 career interceptions in regular-season play and an additonal five thefts in playoff games.

Reed is among several stars remaining in this postseason -- including Polamalu, the Arizona Cardinals' Kurt Warner and the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb -- who seemingly have Hall of Fame credentials.

But enshrinement in Canton might be the last thing on Reed's mind, if he even thinks about it at all.

Away from the field, Reed is thoughtful and intelligent -- he graduated from the University of Miami with a liberal arts degree in three years -- but he also is a very private person. He's what those in the NFL community call a "football player." It describes one who enjoys winning and the competition of the game but not necessarily the publicity that comes with it.

Reed is a throwback to a time when game day was the only day that mattered in the NFL. He is not a fan of the incessant sideshow, hype and smack talk that goes on in between games today. Reed's approach would make many old-timers proud.

On Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., Reed will be an important player to watch when the sixth-seeded Ravens (12-5) play the top-seeded Titans (13-3) for the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Until then, ESPN.com will help you get a better understanding of the five-time Pro Bowler and this season's interception leader.

Who is Ed Reed?

No one covers the gridiron like Reed. Off the field, no one gets Reed to uncover himself.
He doesn't enjoy lengthy media interviews. His stall is in the back corner of the Ravens' locker room, closest to the shower, training room and the exit door so he can efficiently get in and out of meetings. Everything has a purpose when it comes to the extent and seriousness of Reed's preparation.

When first-year coach John Harbaugh was asked this week whether he had any funny Reed stories, his response was brief.

"No," he said bluntly.

Reed's teammates cannot relate funny Reed tales, either. But a tour through the Ravens' locker room drew various descriptions of Reed as "quiet," "humble," "soulful," "laid back" and "a great guy."

"He is real low key; that's definitely him," Baltimore safety Jim Leonhard said. "He's one of those guys that you don't necessarily see a lot [publicly] or know what's going on all the time about him."

Scott Martin coached Reed for two and a half years at Destrehan. Martin said Reed -- who spent his high school years splitting time between his family's home near a violent section of New Orleans and a family friend's home in a more peaceful neighborhood -- was always quiet in nature. Martin added that Reed also has a lot of character and depth to him and is passionate about things beyond football, such as helping underprivileged children.

"He is a very private person," Martin said. "He's unlike a lot of NFL stars. He's very gracious, and when I've talked to him and asked about the future of his career, he's got a good handle on it.

"Ed's not going to be a man that plays for 20 years just because he's got nothing else to do. He has a good grasp on life and where he wants his future to go."

The playmaker

The Reed everyone knows is the person we see on game day. He is arguably the league's most dominant defensive player with the potential to change games.

Former NFL quarterback (and current ESPN analyst) Trent Dilfer vividly recalls throwing an astonishing interception to Reed. In a 2007 game between the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, Dilfer spotted Reed playing the deep third of the field before the snap. He threw a hook route on the outside hash.

The throw was too high for both the receiver and the cornerback, but Reed gambled by leaving his area so early he was in the right place to pick off the errant pass. Dilfer said he couldn't believe Reed flashed in that area and never saw a safety make that type of play in his 13 years in the league.

"He is the only guy I've ever seen that has the ability to be completely out of position at all the right times and never be out of position in the wrong times," Dilfer said.

Some credit goes to Reed's film study. Every player watches game tape, but few can break it down like Reed. While others watch for execution, Reed is looking for tendencies as well.

Where are the quarterback's presnap reads? Who is his favorite target on third down? Does the signal-caller have any quirks to give away play-action fakes?

One teammate estimated Reed watches about 25 hours of game tape per week outside of his normal film study and practice with the team.

"It's to the point where he knows more than the coaches at times," Ravens defensive back Evan Oglesby said.

The combination of smarts, lengthy preparation and rare athletic ability produces results on the football field. Reed has reached the end zone four times this season -- three interception returns and one fumble recovery -- and Baltimore is 4-0 in those games. Including the postseason, Reed has 11 interceptions on the year.

Reed often makes his interceptions in full stride -- and that leads to big returns. He has an amazing 1,144 career return yards. Because the NFL considers regular-season records separate from postseason marks, his career return totals do not include his 64-yard touchdown on one of his two interceptions in the Ravens' 27-9 wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins this past Sunday.

"You can flat out tell that he goes out every Sunday and knows exactly where the reads are going," former Dallas Cowboys safety and current ESPN analyst Darren Woodson said. "I know he played quarterback at some point in his life, because he knows how to read offenses from the middle of the field."

Greatest safety ever?

Is Reed the greatest safety in NFL history? Let's open the discussion.

First, consider the big picture. Reed is a ball-hawking safety with unique coverage skills and responsibilities. He often plays the deep third or deep half of the field, while other all-time greats such as Ronnie Lott physically dominated closer to the line of scrimmage. It's difficult to compare, for instance, Lott's ferocious hitting with Reed's ability to intercept passes from that position.

"Every safety has something different that he brings to the table," said Reed, who refuses to partake in the debate.

Statistically, the all-time interception leader is longtime Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings safety Paul Krause with 81. He played 16 years. Reed's 43 career interceptions put him at an average of 6.14 per season, compared to Krause's 5.06 per season.

At Reed's current pace, he would need a little more than six seasons to surpass Krause's all-time mark. It's certainly possible if Reed, 30, desires to play well into his 30s.

Regardless of Reed's future plans, his journey likely will include a trip to the Hall of Fame. Who knows, with a little work, maybe he can make a few basket catches in the major leagues similar to one of his interceptions against the Dolphins this past weekend.

"I'd like to give baseball a try, coaching and doing some things in the neighborhoods, helping kids out across the world," Reed said. "It's really no limit. So hopefully in the future sometime I'll be doing that."


Hurricane Rolle a hit for Cardinals

Place a football in their hands, and some people make plays. Only a few make magic.

Meet Antrel Rolle, a young man who has turned 50 percent of his interceptions into touchdowns. And that's only half the story.

"I think it's just a Miami thing," Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Look around the league. Remember the late Sean Taylor? Every time he got his hands on the ball, he was going to the end zone. You saw (the Ravens) Ed Reed on Sunday, and what he's done his whole career. Antrel has that same knack for the end zone, the same swagger, effort and determination to change the course of the game."

These days, the best part of the Cardinals defense is no longer the depth of defensive linemen. It's the upgraded secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is ascending toward becoming the team's best cover cornerback since Aeneas Williams, and Rod Hood is much better when battling the other team's lesser receiver. Meanwhile, Adrian Wilson is a Pro Bowl safety who'll hit you into the neighbor's living room, a man who knocked out quarterback Trent Edwards and personally derailed a promising season in Buffalo. After that game, Wilson actually received hate mail from enraged Bills fans.

But the story of Rolle is becoming absurd. He's not particularly elusive. He's certainly not that fast. He's built solid and muscular, and his lack of foot speed is partly why he was switched from cornerback to safety. Yet Rolle has somehow returned 4 of 8 interceptions for touchdowns, and the numbers should be even more incredible.

They don't count an interception Rolle returned for a score last season against Cincinnati (his third of the game), a touchdown wrongly nullified by penalty. The league acknowledged so publicly.

They don't count a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown against the 49ers earlier this season nullified by an offsides penalty on Wilson.

Rolle should be 6 of 10, a percentage that drops the jaw. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown in last week's playoff win against Atlanta.

By comparison, Reed is rightfully considered the master of the pick six, a man with an astonishing 1,144 career yards on interception returns. Playoffs included, Reed has returned 6 of 48 interceptions for touchdowns, a ratio that actually pales in comparison to his fellow Hurricane.

"Some guys just have that innate quality," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Sometimes, you say they're lucky. But when it creates a pattern, it's something different. Either Antrel's one of the luckiest people I've ever been around, or there's some type of talent there."

Rolle says he's always had a nose for the end zone. He was a running back for most of his young life, and he runs with the same kind of internal fury that pours from Anquan Boldin. He follows his blocks, stops with anti-lock brakes and innately understands all angles. His eyes are always well beyond the nearest tackler.

"Once I get the ball in my hands, I definitely know what to do," Rolle said. "I just keep my eyes on the bigger prize and if they touch me or grab at me, nine times out of 10 I don't feel it."

After a rough start, Rolle has finally found a comfort level. He was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft, and struggled with the pressure, the expectations and with Dennis Green's defense. He was at risk of becoming yet another Arizona draft debacle, a player the Cardinals chose over defensive beasts like DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman.

"I was used to being a pressing corner, and my first two years here, it was mandatory that we played nine yards off the ball," Rolle said. "That threw me off a little bit."

Now, Rolle is developing fast. He wants to be the next Reed. He wants to "see what he sees." The two men are friends, members of the Hurricane fraternity, and Rolle vows to spend part of the upcoming offseason learning more from the master.

Once a target, Rolle is making them pay for throwing his way. For Cardinals fans, that's when the magic begins.


Report: Browns to trade Winslow in offseason?

The National Football Post's Michael Lombardi believes the Browns will trade Kellen Winslow this offseason.

Winslow wore out his welcome with the previous regime, but Lombardi reports that he's also "not been a part of any discussions with coaching candidates." Whether he stays or goes, Winslow is going to be pushing hard for a contract extension.


Panthers Notebook: Lewis says he'll be ready to go against Cards

Defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu went through full practice yesterday for the second day in a row and both said they will be ready for Saturday night's playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Lewis missed the Panthers' 33-31 win at New Orleans in the regular-season finale because of a shoulder injury suffered the previous week in a 34-28 overtime road loss to the New York Giants. Kemoeatu missed both of those games after suffering an ankle injury in the Panthers' 30-10 win over Denver on Dec. 14.

Lewis said he couldn't have played last week had the Panthers been in one of the NFC wild-card games, but he felt better thanks to the Panthers' first-round bye.

"It feels great," Lewis said. "I'm just a little sore today, and I was a little sore after yesterday's practice, which was expected. But the strength is holding up well. My mobility is good. I'm able to lock out and do the things I was doing before I got hurt. We've got braces to keep it from getting too far out of whack, so I think it'll be good."


Chudzinski, Linehan will interview for 49ers’ OC job

At this time last year, Rob Chudzinski signed a three-year contract extension with the Browns rather than interview for the Baltimore Ravens coaching job.

Now, with Cleveland expected to hire Jets quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll as its offensive coordinator, Chudzinski is looking for work with his three-year extension in hand. He might not have to wait long to find it.

Chudzinski will interview Saturday with San Francisco, which is looking to match head coach Mike Singletary with a bright, progressive mind. One day before Chudzinski is scheduled to interview, San Francisco is scheduled to kick off its offensive coordinator search with former St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan.

Linehan and Chudzinski will be the first two candidates to interview for the 49ers offensive coordinator job, but they are not expected to be the last. San Francisco plans to speak with six or seven candidates and have them meet with Singletary before making a final decision. This is one it wants to get right. It has not always done that in the past.


NFL alums honor Texans' Johnson

Postseason honors are continuing for Texans receiver Andre Johnson, who was named the NFL Alumni Wide Receiver of the Year on Wednesday. It is the second time in his career he has received the honor. He captured it in 2006 as well.

Johnson, who led the league in receptions and receiving yards, will be honored with the other 2008 recipients at the 27th annual Player of the Year Awards Dinner on Jan. 30 in Tampa, Fla. Each honoree receives their award from a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who once played the same position.

Johnson joins special teams player Jerome Mathis (2005) and defensive end Mario Williams (2007) as the only Texans to be honored by the NFL Alumni.

Johnson has also been voted as a starter in the upcoming Pro Bowl, and he is expected to be named to his first Associated Press All-Pro team later in the week.


Former Seahawk Cortez Kennedy is a Hall finalist

Former Seahawk defensive tackles Cortez Kennedy and John Randle are among 17 finalists to be considered for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this month.

Kennedy, 40, played from 1990 to 2000 with the Seahawks and in 1992 was named the league's defensive player of the year. Kennedy and safety Kenny Easley (1984) are the only Seahawks to be named the league's outstanding defensive player.

Kennedy's eight Pro Bowl selections were the most in franchise history before offensive tackle Walter Jones, who was named to his ninth Pro Bowl this season.

The Hall's board of selectors will meet in Florida on Jan. 31, the day before the Super Bowl. A finalist needs at least 80 percent of the vote to earn induction into the Hall of Fame, which is in Canton, Ohio.


Lewis never lacks for motivation against Titans

Ray Lewis plays football for its challenges. Even now.

He plays for the challenges presented by grown men staring at one another from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, ready to test the will of their opponent.

I can block you. I can run over you. No you can't.

Lewis said this is why he continues to occupy the middle of the Baltimore Ravens defense. And after 13 seasons and so many tackles, his legacy is still being written. Arguably he's already the best middle linebacker in NFL history.

Lewis and the Ravens face the Titans on Saturday at LP Field in an AFC divisional playoff game. The winner goes to the AFC Championship, one step from Super Bowl XLIII. This is the kind of game Ray Lewis craves.

"For me as a man, to be in the business I'm in, if someone is going to challenge me, I'm going to make sure I'm physically prepared to bring on any challenge that anybody brings on me," Lewis said Tuesday during a conference call. "I look forward to it."

The Titans give Lewis and the Ravens a formidable challenge.

Chris Johnson and LenDale White run behind one of the NFL's best lines and formed the league's seventh-best rushing attack in the regular season. They offer variations of styles — White the pounder, looking for lanes, and Johnson the speedy yet durable rookie who always seems to be one step from breaking away.

And if Lewis needed any more motivation, he can think back to Week 5 when the Titans went to Baltimore and won 13-10 — in a game the Ravens limited Tennessee to 47 rushing yards.

It's because of Lewis that Baltimore's defense forced the most three-and-outs (60) in the league this season. He's why the Ravens were one of the best in the league in red-zone defense and run defense and pass defense.

He's the big reason their defense is not only respected but also feared. The unit has taken on the boisterous, cocky, animated, yet spiritual persona of its leader.

"He's hungry. He plays with that fire and guys feed off him," Titans tight end Alge Crumpler said. "He shoots gaps, he makes plays, he's very instinctual. He gets in the backfield. He just has a great knowledge of what offenses do."

Lewis, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, is approaching the midway point of his second decade in the NFL, despite playing the game with the instincts of a bloodhound, the intensity of a drill instructor and the recklessness of a Hollywood stuntman. He led Baltimore's No. 2-ranked defense during the regular season with 160 tackles, marking the 11th time he led the Ravens in the category.

"He keeps himself in great shape. He takes care of himself physically and studies the game with the best of them," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "I hope all of our young guys emulate Ray Lewis, and if they do, they've got a chance to have a great career, too."

It's no surprise that this season the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year earned his 10th Pro Bowl selection.

"I tell guys all the time, man, you can come in and make a spurt in this league real quick and be forgotten or you can come in to make a spurt in this league and be here for a long time," Lewis said.

He likely had similar words for Johnson when they spoke on the phone before the Week 5 meeting. The linebacker was already a fan of the rookie and got his number from a mutual friend. Johnson said Lewis had some good advice and "thought it was pretty cool" that he called. White is a Lewis fan, too.

"He's proven. He's been doing this for a long time," White said. "It's inspiring to me, to know I can be like that one day, I can play that long with that much intensity, and that well."


Edge still peeved about benching

It's a good thing the Cardinals coaching staff threw a few bones to Edgerrin James after he was benched in favor of rookie Tim Hightower, because the veteran running back revealed hat he would have quit on the team and walked away.

It almost got to that point, too, as James didn't play in three games and in four others, had only seven total carries. Until responding with 173 yards his past two games, including a 73-yard effort to beat the Falcons in last Saturday's playoff game, James has spent much of the season on the sideline.

"It was a different world, but you've got to take the good with the bad," he said after practice on Tuesday. "Throughout my career, everything's been easy and finally you get some adversity. Did I deserve that adversity? No, I'll never agree with that.

"But this is where I'm at and when you sign up to play in the NFL, you've got to take the good with the bad. If it got to the point where I couldn't play, I would have just went home, I would have said '(expletive) it, I ain't going to play then.' But, it never got to that point."

James' return to the Cardinals' offense has given the team new hope, especially this week heading into their NFC divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers.

"We all feel great for Edge," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "He's been a great teammate and a great leader on this team. I know he went through some frustration and disappointment earlier in the year, but couldn't be more excited, not only for what he's doing for us, but for him to get back out there and have some success himself."

Asked whether being more of a contributor down the stretch could make him think twice about his future with the Cardinals, James paused to reflect, but wouldn't bite.

"All I want to do is play right now," he said. "I'm not going to think about that or entertain those thoughts because we've got a chance to do something great right now and talking about stuff like that can only take away from things and be a distraction and more to hurt the team than help it."


Reed overcomes own anguish to be a pain to opposing QBs

The little-known back story to Baltimore Ravens ballhawk Ed Reed's remarkable season is that the five-time Pro Bowl safety has played so well despite a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder.

Because of the condition, Reed wore a hands-off red quarterback's jersey much of training camp and was sidelined the entire preseason.
Reed has battled through the condition to become a relentless pain in the neck to opposing quarterbacks.

"I never doubted my ability," Reed says. "It was just a matter of playing with my injury. The pain is still there. I've just been doing a lot of treatment this year and staying focused and keeping my eyes out for any feeling that I had in training camp that would put me out.

"I haven't had that. So I just move forward with it, take it day by day."

Reed led the league in interceptions with nine this season and has 43 in the regular season for his career. He also has five career playoff interceptions and would seem a natural spokesman for the Maryland Lottery folks because of his uncanny knack for cashing in a pick six.
Fittingly, six of his career interceptions have gone for touchdowns, including a record 107-yard return this season in Week 12 against Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb.

Reed is an interception waiting to happen because he's a quarterback mind reader. He makes the dynamic, game-changing plays that alter the course of a postseason. He did it again by intercepting Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington twice Sunday. He returned his first interception 64 yards for a touchdown, sparking Baltimore's 27-9 wild-card elimination of the Dolphins.

When general manager Ozzie Newsome drafted Reed out of Miami (Fla.) 24th overall in 2002, he envisioned Reed as a generation-next Rod Woodson. Reed hasn't disappointed.

"He's the best ballhawking safety I've seen in the NFL in a long time," says Woodson, an NFL Network analyst.

"What makes him also scary is once he gets the ball in his hands, this guy is looking for the end zone every time. And he's a great pattern reader. He understands the back sides of routes and has great vision and field presence."

The Ravens are 27-8 when Reed makes an interception. When he has two in game, the Ravens are 8-0.

The 2004 NFL defensive player of the year is the only player in league history to boast a touchdown off a punt return, blocked punt, interception and fumble recovery. "He's maybe the best player in the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

Reed has picked off two passes in three consecutive games and has 10 interceptions in Baltimore's last seven outings.

With its five forced turnovers against the Dolphins, the second-ranked Ravens defense, led by coordinator Rex Ryan, was probably the most dominant force of wild-card weekend.

Against Miami, Reed changed the complexion of a 3-3 game in the second quarter. Dolphins second-year receiver Ted Ginn Jr. put a double move on cornerback Samari Rolle only to stumble while the ball was in the air. Reed ran down Pennington's deep pass, making an over-the-shoulder catch as if Pennington's pass were intended for him.

After the catch, Reed turned and burned in punt-return mode, picking up a convoy blockers as he cut first to his left, then back across the field and down the right sideline for the 64-yard score.

He intercepted Pennington again in the third quarter to stop a Dolphins drive that had reached the red zone.

What Reed hopes to get his hands on most, however, is the Lombardi Trophy.

Reed arrived two years after the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.

Baltimore was positioned well as the AFC's second seed two seasons ago but lost its divisional-round playoff against the Indianapolis Colts, the eventual Super Bowl champions.

Reed and his teammates are determined to make the most of this chance.

"We're on a mission," Reed says.

Reed and 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis have a sandlot-type synergy born of their study habits, their tenacity for making plays and their habit for practicing the way they play.

Ryan conducts a dominant defense that thrives on creating chaos for quarterbacks often bewildered by which defensive linemen are dropping into coverage and who is blitzing. The Ravens racked up a league-best 34 takeaways during the regular season.

"I love watching them practice," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth says. "They'll have six guys on one side, and they'll blitz on the other. You go, 'How did they do that?'

"Ray Lewis and Ed Reed make so many calls on the fly. I had a conversation with those guys on the field one time and asked them, 'How do you guys make so many changes? Are you just making this up?'

"And they said, 'Yeah, a little bit. At the last second, we redirect guys and change the blitz. And this guy will have to adjust and cover for me if I do this.'

"This team is a dangerous football team,"

They are led by that pain-in-the-neck safety no quarterback wants to face.

"Here we come," Reed said after the wild-card win. "Here come the Ravens, the team you don't want to see."


Clinton Portis: "Is it Really Hope?"

Here are a few clues that let you know you've stumbled upon another choice Clinton Portis radio appearance:

1) Host John Thompson tells Portis, "Boy, you're crazy," not once, but twice.
2) Portis refers to himself in the third person at least three times.
3) Portis volunteers to be the team's punter.

So yeah, in addition to Chris Cooley endorsing Vinny Cerrato on the radio this week, we also had Portis's final John Thompson Show appearance of the year on ESPN 980. In a year where Portis's radio appearances were often more entertaining (with a LOT more offense) than many Redskins games, you had to figure he had one more headline-grabbing performance in him, and sure enough.

It's hard for me to divine exactly what Portis was trying to say, though. Was he complaining about the play-calling? The coaching organizational ladder? Was he joking? Being serious? Was he wishing he had gotten more chances to help his stats? Wishing he had been able to better help the team? Just blowing off steam? Or merely throwing one final offseason bone to bloggers? Unclear, but if he wanted to end talk of Portis and discontent, this was a strange tactic.

For sheer ridiculousness, I suppose the highlight came when Thompson asked Portis whether he has enough seniority to offer suggestions on the team's offensive philosophy.

"I don't think my seniority had nothing to do with it," Portis said. "You know, they gave seating charts when we flew to the West Coast. I was in coach. So I don't have enough seniority."

"Boy, you crazy," Thompson said.

"It was a whole bunch of guys sitting up in first class," Portis continued, "legs kicked back, and me and Santana sitting back there crunched up in coach, along with Jason. So you know, I don't know what's going on around there, man. There's not much I'm gonna say. I'm gonna go out and try to take care of Clinton and make sure Clinton's all right, and however they go or whatever they do with it, that's on them."

So that was fun. But for "spending three weeks puzzling and arguing on message boards over what the man meant," this was the money quote. It came after Thompson observed, rightly, that Portis still sounded depressed about the end of the season.

"I mean, bro, to be in Week 9 of a season and five yards away from a thousand yards at the end of the third quarter, and all of the sudden you can't get five yards in the game because y'all trying to win the game?" Portis offered by way of an answer. "And you're finished, and can't even get to 1,500 yards? You know, I mean, you want to have hope, but is it really hope? You're telling me in seven games I couldn't get 500 yards after I was 300 yards above all competition in Week 9? So who knows, man? I can't do nothing but go ahead and just do what they ask me to do. If they ask me to come in and start punting, I'm gonna get my leg ready and learn how to be a punter."

Other memorable moments to chew over during an offseason that will likely be devoid of Redskins radio firestorms:

On his relationship with Jim Zorn: "I mean, I think it's gonna have to be a give and take relationship. You know, it can't be a dictatorship. I know he's the head coach and he's gonna be set in his ways, but it really gonna have to be give and take. You know, you can't rule with an iron fist. I'm gonna come out and give you everything that' I've got and I'm sure he's gonna go out and give everything he's got.

"I think the point is just learning your personnel, learning what you've got. You know, you can't listen to the outside world or get involved in what the outside world thinks. Because, no matter how it ended up, I wasn't the only guy not practicing, I was the only guy it was talked about not practicing."

On the team's offensive philosophy: "I think we was healthy in the 6-2 span and playing smashmouth football. And through that span of whatever we went, 2-6, I think we just lost the identity of what we were trying to do. I think when the running game was our focal point, I think Jason was playing great, I think Santana was playing great and Cooley as well and everybody else was getting involved. And once we got away from that and just started slinging the ball, nobody did anything. Jason's play fell off, my play fell off, 'Tana's play fell off, Cooley's play fell off. So I think we've just got to stick with what's working."

[For the record, the Redskins averaged 33.4 runs in the first half of the season, and 26.4 in the second. They averaged 29 passing attempts in the first half, and 34.8 in the second.]

On the two-back system: "I think when Ladell was healthy and we had our own rotation going and we were 6-2, things was going good. All of the sudden you come back, and this happen and that happen, now all of the sudden you come out of the game, 'Hey, Ladell's going in. All right, come back, your turn.' You know, you really can't get in a groove.

"And I think whatever ain't broke, man, don't fix it. You know, you come in, tampering, changing things around, I think me and Ladell coexisted fine in the beginning of the season; it was in the later part of the season where we began to be told how we was going in and when we was playing, and I think [Ladell] was kind of banged up as well as me, so our play declined."

On the coaches changing their minds: "I think Coach [Stump] Mitchell always shot us straight, man, and let us go out to be men. I think he did his best of keeping us alerted. He really wasn't in control. I think every other position coach on our team gets to control their guys. I don't think Coach Stump had the same opportunity. You know, it was above him, and he did his best, he came in, he prepared us.

"At 6-2, when he was in control, I think we were doing fine. You know, all of the sudden, things change, everybody have input on the running game all of the sudden. What the runners need to do and where we need to go and how we need to slide and how we need to run into a pile. You know, I think me and Ladell been in the NFL seven years, so my track record speaks for itself. I think I know how to [run the] ball, but I guess people weren't satisfied."

On whether the problem was the O-Line or the philosophy: "Hey, I'm just saying, that was the same offensive line we had at 6-2. I don't think we didn't trade no linemen during the middle of the season. It worked to get to 6-2, so if you feel like our offensive line wasn't a good pass-blocking offensive line and all of the sudden we throw 50 passes, well....

"You know, I mean, that's on them. That's on the front office, you know, that's on them to decide if our offensive line was good enough, if I was good enough, if anybody else was good enough. Only thing we can do is go to work. You can't control the front office, I won't try to control the front office. And like I said, I'm gonna try to do my part, to take care of Clinton Portis, and however that end up, that's how it'll end up."


Natt counters Salmons' beef

CHICAGO – When Kings swingman John Salmons voiced frustrations about his offensive struggles Monday night, there was no mistaking his opinion.

Even with Kevin Martin's return from injury, Salmons said it is up to the team's coaching staff to keep him involved.

A day later, Kings coach Kenny Natt disagreed.

"I'll continue to make the decisions as long as I'm the coach of the team," Natt said before Tuesday's game. "I'll try to do whatever I can to make things better for the guys out there on the floor. But I don't shoot shots. I don't turn the ball over.

"I told him, 'Hey, I'm a man, just like all of you. I've made mistakes, and we have to learn to own up to our mistakes and our lack of effort and production."

Salmons' comments came after he had scored a season-low three points. But the issue of combining his isolation style with that of his teammates is not new. Natt has been preaching the sort of ball movement and tempo that often contradicts Salmons' tendencies, and Natt said that reality remains.

"He has to learn how to be with the other guys out there on the floor," Natt said.

In the end, they agreed on one key point: Salmons and Martin have the potential to be a dangerous duo.

"I see and envision a great opportunity for having a double punch now that we have Kevin back and doing his thing," Natt said.


James cherishes another chance in playoffs

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Edgerrin James wasn't sure he'd ever get back in the lineup, let alone the playoffs. He is cherishing the opportunity.

"You don't understand the importance of being in the playoffs in your early years," James said after the Arizona Cardinals practiced Tuesday. "But as you go down in your career, those things become bigger and bigger. For somebody like me, it's super big to be in the playoffs and especially doing it here."

James' return from an eight-game benching and the successful running game he's brought with him are intriguing subplots to the Cardinals' advance to an NFC semifinal game at Carolina on Saturday night.

"I think we all feel great for Edge," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "He's been a great teammate and a great leader on this team. I knew he went through some frustrations and some disappointment earlier in the year, and we couldn't be more excited not only for what he's doing for us but for the chance for him to get back out there and have the success that he's had."

James came to Arizona in 2006 as probably the highest-profile free agent acquisition in the franchise's history. He signed a four-year, $40 million contract and went on to become the second player in Cardinals history to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

But Arizona's ground game was awful this season, and the offense more and more relied on Warner's passing. There was a perception, fairly or not, that James had lost a step from his salad days with the Indianapolis Colts.

And he didn't like the heavy emphasis on the passing game, where he'd be blocking far more often than he carried the ball.

After James gained 7 yards in 17 carries and had a critical fumble in a 27-23 loss at Carolina on Oct. 26, coach Ken Whisenhunt benched the 30-year-old running back in favor of rookie Tim Hightower. Whisenhunt said at the time he was going with the player he felt gave the team the best chance to be successful.

Hightower had a big game the following week, gaining 109 yards in 22 carries against St. Louis, then the Arizona ground game went dormant again. James, though, mostly watched. Over the next seven games, he had seven carries for 15 yards. It picked up to four carries for 19 yards in the team's 47-7 debacle in the snow of New England, then James without fanfare returned as the lead back in the regular-season finale against Seattle.

Whisenhunt pointed to James' experience — nine playoff games with the Colts — as a big reason for the switch.

"We knew that if we had a chance to go to the playoffs ... that having a back that had been there, that was a good back, was going to be something that we were going to have to rely on," Whisenhunt said.

James didn't make any waves personally during his exile, but agent Drew Rosenhaus asked the Cardinals to trade the running back. The Cardinals ignored the request. James said it never got to the point where he thought about simply leaving.

"I love to play the game and I'm not going to be somebody that's a sore loser," he said. "Regardless of how things went I was going to try to man up and stand there and do what I've got to do and not pout about things."

He acknowledged he'd had life pretty easy in his seven years with Indianapolis, where he'd topped 12,000 yards in a season five times.

"Finally you get some adversity," he said. "Did I deserve that adversity? I'll never agree to that. But the thing about it is this is where I'm at. This is what I signed up for. When you sign up to play in the NFL and you sign up to play with a team, you've got to take the good with the bad."
James has a year left on his contract, but said last week he expects to be gone after this season by mutual agreement with the team. He declined to speak on the subject Tuesday.

He gained 100 yards in 14 carries in the season-ending 34-21 victory over Seattle, passing Franco Harris into 11th in the NFL's career rushing list.

Then he had 73 yards in 16 attempts in last Saturday's 30-24 victory over Atlanta, outgaining the Falcons' Michael Turner.

His teammates' confidence in the ground game grew with James' return.

"It definitely motivates us when you see him break a tackle, running hard, fighting for every yard," tackle Mike Gandy said. "That can't help but motivate you. You feel that energy building, you feel that crowd getting behind him."

As prolific as the Cardinals are at passing, they know they have to have some success on the ground to survive in the playoffs.

"That's enormous at this stage," Warner said. "It takes pressure off of our front five guys. I think that's the biggest benefit of all is people knowing that we're not going to drop back every snap and they've got to pass protect on every snap."

James looks at Adrian Wilson, Arizona's Pro Bowl safety in the playoffs for the first time in his eight NFL seasons, and realizes how precious this experience should be.

And the running back is thrilled to be part of it and not a bystander.

"You want to play," he said. "I'll never be one of the guys that's just going to be happy to be on the team. I want to be part of the ones making it happen. That's the rush I get out of playing the game. I don't like to be somebody that's just filling in or just sitting around."


Reed is the NFL's best player

Voters of the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award messed up.

That’s the bottom line.

The wrong person received the NFL’s MVP award this season. And that’s not a knock against this season’s recipient, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

It’s a compliment to the person that should have the title of the NFL’s MVP.

Let’s look at Manning for a bit.

Many people believe Manning played the best football of his career during the 2008 season, and that is hard to argue against.

Manning did his usual, passing for more than 4,000 yards while adding an impressive 27 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions.

On top of that, he led a team that might not have been as good as it has been in recent years on a nine-game winning streak and a 12-4 record.
That’s pretty darn impressive, and admittedly is MVP worthy.

But, as deserving of the award as Manning was, there is another player who I believe was even more deserving.

To give this player an award, though, would mean the voters would have to think a little bit outside of the box.

Consider, no player at his position has ever been named the NFL’s MVP. The position I’m talking about is safety.

The player I’m talking about is Baltimore’s Ed Reed.

Before this season, Reed, a former Destrehan High standout, was easily the best safety in the NFL.

Throughout the course of this season, and especially since the beginning of December, Reed now has to be included in the conversation of the best safeties ever.

Not counting the playoffs, he has nine interceptions and 16 passes defended. He returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns. He also forced a fumble that he returned for a touchdown.

In the Ravens’ wild-card playoff game against the Miami Dolphins, Reed stayed hot, intercepting two more passes and returning one 64 yards for a touchdown that gave Baltimore a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.


But for Reed, spectacular has become routine.

In five of the last seven games he’s played in, Reed has had two interceptions.

In a 36-7 shellacking of the Philadelphia Eagles, Reed returned an interception 107 yards for a score.

In a 24-10 win against the Washington Redskins, Reed followed an interception by stripping the ball from running back Clinton Portis, picking it up and scoring.

And, in consecutive games, with playoff positioning on the line, Reed had two interceptions against both the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.

In a career that’s been filled with big plays -- Reed has 43 regular season interceptions in seven seasons -- the Destrehan product just continues to get better.

Even more surprising is that Reed didn’t win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. That honor went to Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison.

Harrison had a great season, as did Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, who finished second in voting. Both players have huge impacts on a game. Harrison finished with 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles, and Ware finished with 20 sacks.

But Reed can single-handedly take over a game, as he’s shown over and over again.

Even on defense, Reed is somehow his team’s most dangerous offensive weapon -- try to make sense of that.

His interceptions on Sunday against Miami caused a 14-point swing.

He scored on his first interception, and his second interception ended a Dolphins’ drive deep in Ravens territory.

Anytime he’s on the field, Reed is the best player. Period.

And, in my book, Reed should be the NFL’s MVP.

It’s not a knock against any other player -- it’s just a compliment to the NFL’s best player.


Reed Passed Over

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor, getting 22 votes to pass Ravens safety Ed Reed, who only received eight.

Reed finished third in the running, also falling behind Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s 13 votes.

The case was strong for Reed, however. The seven-year veteran led the league with nine interceptions this year, tying the career mark he matched in 2004, when he originally won the award. Reed also scored three touchdowns during the regular season.

And in the playoffs, Reed stepped up even more, posting two interceptions and a touchdown last Sunday.

“I think Ed Reed deserves to be the Defensive Player of the Year, without question,” Harbaugh said emphatically. “We’ve said it many times about all of our guys: We think we have the best players in the National Football League. Football teams win when really good players play really well. As a coach, that’s what you try to get. We know each other, we recognize one another, and we’re excited to play this week.”

Reed has certainly won the endorsement of his teammates.

“He’s the greatest safety in the game, and he’s proven that week in and week out,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs. “We as a team are disappointed that he didn’t get the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, but then again we probably didn’t want him to win it.

“Everyone who has won an individual award is either out of the playoffs or they didn’t make it at all. We commend them on winning their individual award but we are trying to win a bigger award as a team.”

Added Flacco about Reed’s performance at Dolphin Stadium: “At this point we kind of expect it. We are spoiled. You see him catch the ball, and you are like, ‘Not again.’ He takes it to the end zone almost every time.”


McGahee Misunderstood?

One week ago, running back Willis McGahee was taken to task by several media members for making what were perceived as selfish comments on a national radio interview.

McGahee intimated that he was playing for himself and seemed to put some blame for his diminished production and rash of injuries this season on the Ravens' coaching staff for asking him to alter his offseason routine and running style.

But, McGahee didn’t want to come off as thinking singularly, further explaining himself before the Ravens headed to Miami, where they thrashed the Dolphins 27-9.

"It doesn't mean I'm not a team player," McGahee said at the time. "If I wasn't a team player, I would have shut it down in the middle of the season from the knee surgery and all that. It meant: 'I can't be what somebody else wants me to be. I can only be me.'

"I wasn't indicating it's all about Willis McGahee because Willis McGahee's season has been over since Week 5. It's not like the season I normally have, so it is over for me. So that's how I look at it."

Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh saw it in a similar fashion.

“I know that Willis is a team guy,” Harbaugh noted in a Monday press conference. “That’s something that he’s said many times. If you look at his comments up until what he said last week, it was really clear.

“I think what he was being pressed on was the fact of how did his season go personally. And he tried to answer the question honestly, that personally, he felt like he could have done better.

McGahee has battled through knee, eye, ribs and ankle injuries since training camp, which have contributed to a career-low 671 rushing yards in 2008 – a far cry from his career-high 1,483 total yards he posted last year.

Still, he has seen success in recent weeks.

In a Week 16 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, he racked up 108 rushing yards on eight carries, including an electrifying 77-yard scoring run. In the season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he gave the Ravens a 17-7 lead in the second quarter with a tough 13-yard touchdown dash up the middle.

And, McGahee had the biggest offensive gain in the Miami Wild Card contest, when he sprinted 48 yards to the Dolphins’ 4-yard line, setting up a touchdown sneak from quarterback Joe Flacco that iced the outcome.

“I know one thing: He’s focused on what he can do right now to help our team,” Harbaugh continued. “We talked about what he can do in December, what he did, and what he can do in January. And, he’s doing those things. He had a heck of a December; he’s having a heck of a January.

“He’s focused on this week right now.”

After the Dolphins game, where he had 62 yards on seven attempts, McGahee was careful when he spoke.

“I don’t want to get into trouble for saying anything,” he stated with a laugh. “Every time I say something, it comes out different. I’m just chilling. I’m just happy we got a win.”


Beason quickly becomes Panthers’ defensive leader

(AP) CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Jon Beason is ahead of schedule. Again.

Whether it’s reading a play, getting to the ball carrier, racking up records or winning awards, the Carolina Panthers linebacker does things before people expect them to happen.

Now, armed with his first Pro Bowl selection, Beason will play in his first playoff game Saturday when the Panthers (12-4) face Arizona (10-7) in the NFC divisional round. It’s another milestone for the speedy, instinctive and quietly confident Beason, who in 32 games has established himself as one of the NFL’s top linebackers.

"When you plan for it, it’s easy when it does happen," Beason said Tuesday of his whirlwind two years. "You don’t have to pinch yourself as much, even though I have quite a bit."

When the Panthers selected the 6-foot, 237-pound Miami product with the 25th pick in the 2007 draft, they envisioned him as Dan Morgan’s eventual replacement at middle linebacker.

Beason started training camp as an outside linebacker and started there in the first four games. But when the oft-injured Morgan went down again with an Achilles’ tendon injury, Beason took over in the middle.

Suddenly, he was the defensive signal caller. But that was about all he said on the field _ even as he made a team-record 160 tackles.

"Going into Miami and obviously coming into the NFL, it’s about earning respect as a young guy," Beason said. "You haven’t done anything so you shouldn’t say anything.

"That’s really what it was last year. Just come in, doing your job, being a pro, being accountable and playing hard and the veterans are going to respect that. Once you have their respect, you are a leader."

After an offseason that saw defensive tackle Kris Jenkins traded to the New York Jets and defensive end Mike Rucker retire, it was time for Beason to become vocal in a new-look defense built to be speedy and strong, two of his traits.

"The No. 1 way to earn respect is with your play," safety Chris Harris said. "He shows up every week and gives it his all. Guys respect that, so it’s not hard to listen to a guy who puts it on the line every time he steps on the field."

Beason finished one tackle shy of last year’s record this season, good enough to be voted to the Pro Bowl. He was also honored as the NFC defensive player of the month for October.

One of his three interceptions came near the goal line and with Carolina clinging to a 24-23 lead early in the fourth quarter of the regular-season meeting with the Cardinals. The Panthers won 27-23.

"It’s evident to me that he studies a lot of tape, because he knows what’s going on and he reacts to it well," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We voted for him for the Pro Bowl and I think he’s very deserving of that."

Coaches and teammates harp on those football smarts, which have allowed for his quick ascent in the NFL.

"He understands the situational part of football," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He had to game manage the defense against a no-huddle (offense) like against Indy. All that for a rookie is pretty tough. I think he took all that experience and then parlayed it into a pretty good year this year where his peers voted him as a Pro Bowler, and again we’re having success as a football team."

Although the defense hasn’t been that successful of late. In the past two games, the Panthers have allowed 301 yards rushing to the Giants and 386 yards passing to the Saints.

Beason was held to a season-low two tackles against the Saints. Not overly big, teams have tried to neutralize him with more blockers with run-clogging defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu sidelined with an ankle injury.

The Panthers weren’t required by the NFL to submit an injury report Tuesday, but they’re hoping to get Kemoeatu and defensive tackle Damione Lewis (shoulder) back on Saturday night against the high-scoring Cardinals.

"Kemo is a big presence in there and a guy you have to respect," Beason said. "It makes it a lot easier for me to run and get off blocks."
Beason acknowledged the biggest games of his career to date came in the Peach Bowl in college and in high school state championships growing up in Miramar, Fla.

He was happy to play a Monday night home game against Tampa Bay last month to get a sense of the atmosphere, which will be even more frenzied Saturday in Carolina’s first home playoff game in five years.

After going 7-9 last season, the Panthers’ return to prominence took just one year. Their linebacker whose career resembles a no-huddle offense had plenty to do with that.

"To do the things he’s done in only two years is big," Harris said. "It usually takes a lot of guys a few years to get acclimated, but he’s a different type of person."


Salmons Ready For Trade?

When the curtain went up on the 2008-09 season it was supposed to be a big year for Sacramento Kings forward John Salmons. After spending five seasons as a complementary player, he was finally going to get his shot at being a star.

The Kings were headed a youth movement before the end of last season, as evidenced by the Mike Bibby trade. The subsequent Ron Artest trade removed the last road block to Salmons, who fully expected to be a major factor for the Kings this season. Unfortuntely, despite his own banner year, the Kings have struggled to put wins on the board, and have already fired head coach Reggie Theus as a result.

Salmons has been as good as anyone could have expected, averaging a career-high 18.9 points per game and shooting 47% from the field. Great stats, though, are no substitute for winning, and the constant losses are starting to grate on Salmons. The fact that Salmons has struggled with his shot since Kevin Martin returned from injury has him frustrated with the entire situation.

"They call the plays, so it's up to them," Salmons told the Sacramento Bee, referring to the coaching staff's responsibility to run plays for him. "There shouldn't be any reason why (Martin and I) shouldn't be able to play together. That's on them, because it's proven (that he can produce)."

These comments will only fuel the rumor mill fires that have already had Salmons on the move a number of times as we count down the days to the trade deadline. A number of teams could use a good swing player, including the Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, and Portland Trail Blazers.

Brad Miller is most likely to be the next King traded, but if Salmons continues to voice his displeasure he might find himself moving to the front of the line.


Olsen made big jump from rookie year to second season

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – After a promising rookie year, Greg Olsen took the next step in 2008, delivering one of the most productive seasons by a tight end in Bears history.

Olsen’s 54 receptions were the most by a Bears tight end since Hall of Famer Mike Ditka had 75 in 1964. And with five touchdown catches, the University of Miami product became the first tight end to lead the Bears outright in that category since Emery Moorehead also had five in 1982.

“I thought he made a big jump,” said tight ends coach Rob Boras. “Having gone through a full year in the NFL allowed him to play more confidently, and that allows you to play fast.

“One of his deficiencies was probably in the run game, and his blocking improved. And then just being in the same system two years in a row, his knowledge and his understanding of the system allowed [offensive coordinator] Ron [Turner] to do a lot of different things with him and take advantage of his skills and the mismatches that we felt we could produce.”

Olsen caught more passes in 2008 than any tight end in Bears history not named Ditka, and his 574 yards ranked second on the team behind Devin Hester’s 665 yards.

“I think I had a pretty solid year,” said Olsen, who was named a second alternate to the Pro Bowl. “I got better and did a better job of growing from last year as a rookie.

“There are a lot of things I can continue to get better at, just trying to put myself up in that elite group of tight ends. That’s obviously the goal personally, and I feel like I definitely can do it.”

Looking to take advantage of mismatches with linebackers and safeties, the Bears lined up Olsen all over the field—as a standard tight end, in the backfield, in the slot and even split out wide as a receiver.

The 2007 first-round draft pick probably made the most strides in the running game.

“Greg improved his blocking quite a bit during the course of the year,” said coach Lovie Smith. “I am very pleased with what Greg Olsen did throughout. We didn’t bring Greg here to be an in-line tight end blocking the power 'O,' but in his role that we asked him to do, I think he did it well and he’ll only get better. 

"His future looks bright wherever we choose to put him.”

Olsen and veteran Desmond Clark form one of the NFL’s top tight end tandems. Olsen entered the league with a humble, hard-working mentality that endeared him to his teammates, and Clark helped make the transition easier.

“[Olsen’s] attitude has been a big factor in his improvement and his assimilation into our offense and what he can do for us,” Boras said. “But then Desmond Clark needs to be complimented as well for having a rookie come in and kind of take a guy under his wing and help him.

“The two of them work very well together. There’s a nice combination there.”


D.J. Williams Needs Shoulder Surgery

Everybody knew Broncos LB D.J. Williams was hurt while trying to play in the final two games of the season but few knew the extent of his pain and now it’s being reported that the weakside linebacker is facing offseason surgery — on his shoulder, not his knee. Williams suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee late in the Broncos’ eighth game against Miami which caused him to miss the next six games and he was listed on the injury report the last two weeks with knee and shoulder injuries.


Rays sign Burrell to two-year deal

Rays signed outfielder Pat Burrell, who had been with the Phillies, to a two-year, $16 million contract.

Burrell has posted OPSs right around 890 four years running, and he's still just 32. He probably won't age particularly well, but he's an excellent pickup at these terms. The Rays will likely use him pretty strictly as a DH. He'll probably be penciled into the sixth spot in the order initially, but the Rays now have the opportunity to rework their lineup if they want top. Dropping either Akinori Iwamura or Carl Crawford into the sixth spot and going with a top five of Crawford/Iwamura, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Burrell would make a lot of sense. As is, the top two hitters both project to have worse numbers than the four guys that follow.


Cardinals’ James Resembles Old Self After a Trying Season

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Given the declarations coming from the Cardinals’ locker room about proving naysayers wrong, it was curious that as Edgerrin James pulled on a sweatshirt Saturday after Arizona’s 30-24 win over Atlanta, there did not appear to be a discernable chip on either of his shoulders.

If there was anyone among the Cardinals who could talk about being disrespected or written off, it was James.

Earlier this season, he lost his starting job to the rookie Tim Hightower. His request to be released was rebuffed, and he said last week that he did not plan on being back with the Cardinals next year. He said his idea of playing running back was not to block in pass protection 50 times a game.
So, did James view his performance Saturday — when he rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries and gave the Cardinals a semblance of balance that they lacked almost all season — as redemption?

“It’s playoff football, man,” said James, who brushed off several versions of the question.

This might have been the most disappointing and least productive season of his career, but there is no bitterness in James.

“It really has nothing to do with proving something to somebody,” James, 30, said. “Once I feel like I can’t play, I won’t go play the game. I’m not in a situation where I have to play. If I couldn’t play at a high level, I would hang it up.”

When James left the Indianapolis Colts and signed a four-year, $30 million contract with Arizona as a free agent in 2006, it seemed a good fit. The Cardinals had not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 1998. James was expected to be the complement to a passing game that would be developed around quarterback Matt Leinart, their first-round draft pick; and two of the N.F.L.’s best young receivers: Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

But James struggled behind a woeful offensive line, the Cardinals got off to a 1-8 start, and Coach Dennis Green was fired at the end of the season. The Cardinals hired Ken Whisenhunt as the coach, and when Leinart was injured early in the 2007 season, they turned to Kurt Warner, who began to resemble the quarterback who had won two Most Valuable Player awards.

James entered the season with questions about how much he had left, given that he began 2008 with 366 more career carries than any other back in the league. He rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries in a season-opening victory over San Francisco, but he was rarely productive after that. After he was benched in Week 9, James carried 11 times over the next eight games.

“Obviously, things didn’t go the way he envisioned them, or the way I’m sure a lot of us envisioned our offense going,” guard Reggie Wells said. “But he persevered and showed up every day to do his job.”

Not that this should have been a surprise. Peyton Manning once called James the best teammate he had ever had, and the Colts’ owner, Jim Irsay, gave James a Super Bowl ring even though he left the team a season before they won the title.

“It’s just part of the business,” James said. “I’m not going to embarrass my family. I’m not going to embarrass my momma because I wasn’t raised to act crazy and go off. I said, You know what? This is what I signed up for. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. You’ve got to stand on the sidelines and do what you’re supposed to do. If I didn’t want to do it, all I had to do was not play. Just say, O.K., I’m going home. But I want to play.”

James got his chance in an otherwise meaningless season finale, rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries against Seattle. With Hightower struggling for an offense whose 3.3 yards a carry was the lowest average in the N.F.L., Whisenhunt turned to James against Atlanta on Saturday.

He carried the ball on three consecutive plays, for 6, 9 and 6 yards, to begin the Cardinals’ second series. He was given the ball on the next play, but flipped it back to Warner, who threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald.

“Edge, from Day 1 of his career, has been known as a guy who doesn’t go backward, who doesn’t take negative runs,” Wells said. “He takes what he can get.”

Late in the third quarter, James took a handoff, juked defensive end Chauncey Davis at the line of scrimmage, ran through the arm tackle of linebacker Keith Brooking, and was brought down by three Falcons after a 10-yard gain. It was part of a drive in which he carried four times for 19 yards and caught a 9-yard pass to convert a third down. The drive ended with Hightower’s touchdown run that put Arizona ahead, 30-17.

“That’s his game,” said Falcons tight end Marcus Pollard, who played six seasons with James in Indianapolis. “He’s strong enough to run over people and quick enough to run around them and make people miss. He looked like Edgerrin James to me in every way.”

When James was asked if he might reconsider leaving the Cardinals, it was the one time he did not take the ball and run with it.

“I don’t want to bring a dark cloud over what is going on right now,” he said. “Everybody knows I can run. It’s just a matter of the situation.

Situations dictate a lot in this business. As far as next year, I’m just going to enjoy this and ride it out.”


Ed Reed uses street smarts to outwit Dolphins

As he made the astonishing play that turned Sunday's playoff game, Ed Reed's mind flickered back to his Louisiana youth and a neighbor's mailbox.

Reed, the former University of Miami star now dominating at safety for the Ravens, was racing back to corral a Chad Pennington overthrow late in the second quarter of a tie game.

Reaching out to make the over-the-shoulder interception, Reed suddenly was 8 years old again, blazing down a side street in his boyhood neighborhood outside New Orleans.

"Street football," Reed said after his two interceptions pointed the Ravens toward a 27-9 win at Dolphin Stadium. "We'd play mailbox to mailbox, probably about 60 yards."

Reed, now 30, paused and fingered a scar that still runs along the left side of his forehead. During one of those many pickup games, he was playing receiver and caught a long pass for a touchdown.

Then thwack!

Right into a mailbox.

Stitches were required, but Reed can't recall how many. He just remembers his father had to come get him and drive him to the hospital.

Whose mailbox was it?

"I have no clue," Reed said, smiling. "They'd probably want me to sign it after this."

You think?

All Reed did Sunday was take that first pick back 64 yards for the game's first touchdown and a 10-3 Baltimore lead. It was his fourth defensive score of the year.

"Felt like I ran 200 yards," Reed said of his zig-zagging jaunt from one sideline to the other and back. "Sort of like track."

His second pick came down near the goal line with the Dolphins driving in the third quarter. Pennington was throwing over the middle, but he was certain Reed would be nowhere in the vicinity.


"Ed Reed being Ed Reed," Pennington said. "He leaves his position and shows up in a place you'd never expect him to be."

Reed nearly had a third interception but another Pennington overthrow somehow squirted through his fingers in the final quarter.

No biggie. Reed still bumped his career interception total to 48, including five in his three career playoff games. Six of those have gone for scores.

Reed, who led the NFL with nine interceptions this year and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, traces his thirst for turnovers to his days in Coral Gables.

Butch Davis and Larry Coker would get irritated when Reed would snatch Ken Dorsey's passes during late-week scrimmages designed to build confidence.

"They used to have to stop me on Thursdays from catching the interceptions because they wanted to get 'the look,'." Reed said. "Well, I'm not going to get better that way."

It's hard to imagine Reed getting much better at this stage of a career that includes a national championship but, incredibly, had lacked a playoff victory until Sunday.

"Ed is pretty special," Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "It becomes a drill after a while. We expect that. I just kind of stood there [on the touchdown] and watched him: 'Go, Ed. Go.'.''

Like a shot-blocker in basketball, Reed enables his fellow defenders to take more chances up front.

"It's like having 44 guys on the field," Pryce said.

Pennington must have felt that way for much of Sunday afternoon as he faced a scary-good Ravens defense with a center fielder patrolling the deep middle.

In fact, Reed played outfield through his senior year of high school and even attended a professional baseball tryout camp at Nicholls State (La.) University.

Reed, who still plays softball in the offseason and takes fungoes in the outfield, was a big Ken Griffey Jr. fan growing up. Rooted hard for the Braves and their 10-time Gold Glove winner, too.

"I got a little Andruw Jones in me," Reed said. "I could climb a wall for you."

Mailboxes are another story.


McGahee totals 69 yards on eight touches

Willis McGahee rushed for 62 yards on seven carries and caught a nine-yard pass in the Ravens' Wild Card game playoff win Sunday.
He played behind LeRon McClain and ahead of Ray Rice, who did not see a carry. McGahee put the game away with a 48-yard run with less than five minutes left in the fourth, stiff arming a helpless Dolphins FS Renaldo Hall to the ground in the process. McGahee will likely be the "change of pace" for McClain again next week, when the Ravens visit Tennessee.


Boivin: Edge gives Cards an edge

Will the Cardinals lose their edge when they lose their Edge?

Will they re-evaluate their fractured relationship with the running back because of his performance in Saturday's playoff victory over Atlanta?

At the very least, Edgerrin James should give management moment of pause. The offense challenged the Falcons with uncharacteristic balance and the outcome was surreal: Quarterback Kurt Warner . . . taking a knee . . . on a field that says "NFL Playoffs" . . . amid a screaming crowd . . . awash in Cardinals red.

Are you kidding me?

As the final seconds ticked off, several defensive players sidled up to James and gave him a piece of their mind.

What were they saying?

"Uh," James said smiling, looking down at his feet. "They were telling me they're not ready for me to go yet."

He's not going, at least for another week. His 73 yards helped set up some of the team's biggest offensive moments.

He carried three straight times before quarterback Kurt Warner connected with Larry Fitzgerald on a 42-yard first quarter scoring play - on a flea-flicker play that started with a handoff to James.

During a drive that lasted seven minutes and 43 seconds in the third quarter - that's right, 7:43 - James carried four times for 19 yards before Tim Hightower took over and capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.

"In the playoffs, you got to be able to run the football. I really believe that," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Edgerrin James is one of the top runners in the league."

It wasn't just James who wanted to see the team keep it on the ground Saturday. At halftime, the offensive linemen were quite animated as they made their case to offensive coordinator Todd Haley to run block a little more in the second half.

They must have made a convincing argument. In the third quarter, the Cardinals had 12 pass attempts versus eight carries. In the fourth, it was nine and nine.

"They finally got the opportunity to run block," James said. "That's why I've never criticized them. Other teams run 30, 35 times. We might run one or two times and then go a long time without running again.

"That's what the playoffs are all about, doing things people think you're not gonna do."

The Cardinals did some things James didn't expect them to do this season. James lost his job to Hightower after seven games and posted just 11 carries during the next eight. His request to be released or traded was refused and then against Seattle last week, he rushed for 100 yards.

In the locker room afterward, he was asked whether the game made him feel differently about his perceived imminent departure. He hemmed and hawed, troubled by the question and worried about the timing.

"I want to enjoy this moment, not be the one to bring a dark cloud to all this," he said. "We'll just see what the situation dictates."

Sounds like James might be leaving the door open just a bit. The situation shouldn't be irreparable if keeping James around next season is in the best interests of the team. How confident can the Cardinals be that they'll find an equal replacement for James in the draft or via free agency?

And really, can it be that bad for James? This team has treated him well, with an extremely generous guaranteed bonus as part of the $30 million deal he signed in 2006.

Yes, things unraveled this season, but both sides proved they could still work together.

"You never want to see a Hall of Fame running back walk out the door," said defensive end Bertrand Berry, who became friends with James when both played for Indianapolis in 1999. "Obviously, he feels he's at a disadvantage in this situation so you can't really blame him, but you don't want to see the guy leave."

Are those seven-minute drives the new look of Cardinals football?

"I don't know what Cardinals football is anymore," James said, laughing.

For another week at least, it surely includes James.


Top Five Candidates for Carolina Panthers MVP

5. JON BEASON. If you think the Panthers' defense has been bad lately despite this Pro Bowl middle linebacker, believe me, you don't ever want to see it without him on the field.


Bears confident Hester will take next step as wide receiver

Hester led Bears wide receivers with 51 receptions for 665 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 65-yard score at Minnesota that was the team’s longest play from scrimmage all season.

“At times he played like a [No. 1] receiver,” said coach Lovie Smith. “If you just look at the progress that he made from start to finish, locking in at one position for the first time in his career … we like the progress he made, so there’s no reason to think he can’t take another jump.”

Hester finished strong, catching 25 passes for 347 yards in the final six games after registering 26 receptions for 318 yards in his first nine contests. In the season finale at Houston, he equaled a career high with six catches for 85 yards, his second highest yardage total of the year.

“The beginning of the season was really kind of shaky,” Hester said. “As the season started going, I felt myself growing a lot the last month. From that point on, I really felt comfortable, the last four or five games. Even though the season didn’t go the way we expected, I feel like I have grown as a receiver a lot.”

While Hester improved as a receiver, he struggled in the return game. After setting an NFL record with five kick return touchdowns as a rookie in 2006 and then breaking it with six in 2007, he failed to return any kicks for scores in 2008.

Hester was replaced on kickoff returns by Danieal Manning in mid-November and finished the season ranked 23rd in punt returns with a 6.2-yard average with a long of 25 yards.

“I still like Devin an awful lot as a player,” Smith said. “I know his returns dropped off a little bit this year, but his plate was full there for a while. We think we have a happy medium now for him as a punt returner and continuing to develop as a receiver.”

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo wasn’t surprised that Hester failed to make the same type of impact on special teams after being elevated into the starting lineup on offense.

“We said that was a possibility,” Angelo said. “I made this statement to Devin and I think I’ve said it here to some of you if not all of you [reporters] at one point: There’s never been a No. 1 receiver and a No. 1 kick returner. If there’s never been one, there’s probably a reason for that.

“So I anticipated the potential of Devin’s returns to fall off given the fact that we were going to escalate his play time at receiver. We wanted to escalate his play time and that’s the course we chose to go down.

“His returns did suffer. Now is that to say that’s the absolute reason why? I don’t know that. Teams got better with their coverage, being there was more of a sense of urgency. I’m sure they did a lot more studying in how to cover with Devin. There are probably other things there too. He wasn’t the returner he was in the last couple years. 

"We’re going to look at that real hard and make sure we continue to define what his role is because the one thing that we know about Devin—and he showed it at receiver—is that he’s a playmaker. And when you get a playmaker, you want to make sure you get him the ball the best way you can to make as many plays as he can.”


Shockey alters offseason plans after disappointing first year with Saints

For Saints TE Jeremy Shockey, the transition to New Orleans was a difficult one. After six successful, albeit controversial, years with the Giants, Shockey had career lows in receiving yards (483) and touchdowns (zero) in an injury-plagued first campaign with his new team. One positive to come out of a disappointing year for both Shockey and the Saints, we hear, is his vow to participate in the team’s offseason workout program and work on establishing a better relationship with QB Drew Brees. For his entire career, Shockey had worked out separately in Miami, away from his team, isolating himself after the final game of the season was played. He’s promising to show his face much more in New Orleans than he ever did with his Giants teammates during the offseason. There’s no guarantee that the results will be any different in 2009, but this can't hurt Shockey moving forward.


Najeh Waived Before Saturday's Game

Prior to the game, the Colts signed offensive lineman Michael Toudouze to the active roster from the practice squad. To make room, they waived veteran running back Najeh Davenport.

The move was expected and necessary. Rookie linemen Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard missed the game with ankle injuries. Dan Federkeil started in place of Pollak at right guard.


Baltimore embraced Lewis; let's hope he stays

The Ravens head into the NFL playoffs today, but who knows where Ray Lewis heads after that? He is their greatest star and their spiritual leader and has played his whole professional career here, but lately you can't mention his name without talk of his possible exodus from Baltimore.

What a pity that professional sports has come to this. Once, we had John Unitas throwing footballs on 33rd Street for 17 seasons, and Lenny Moore racing for the end zone for another dozen, and Gino and Artie and Parker and others lingering for a decade or more, and you knew they weren't going to receive your embrace one moment and then bolt for the door a moment later.

But those were the old rules of sport. Today, the professional athletes follow the money and damn any sentiment that might compromise their bank books. (Does the name Mark Teixeira ring a bell?) So the Ravens will take the field in Miami today against the Dolphins, and already the newspapers and the radio talk shows have been thinking beyond the playoffs and wondering aloud about a Ravens team that might have to face the future without Lewis.

His contract is up, and he'll expect money commensurate with his name, his abilities and his history. All three are not necessarily at the same level. Lewis' name already belongs with the great ones of his sport. His on-field history is Hall of Fame material. But his abilities, after years of physical pounding, make his financial value questionable.

In Miami today, Lewis will put such matters aside. He wants badly to win. The Ravens' season is at stake and so is a chapter of Lewis' legacy. He will spend his percentage of 60 minutes in his customary state of raw fury.

But everyone who follows football closely knows what else is at stake. Lewis is 33 years old and concluding a seven-year contract that pays him $6.5 million this season. He's going to want a lot more money to stay in Baltimore. He'll want to be paid for his name and his history. He's been All-Pro seven times, a Pro Bowler 10 times. He's led the team in tackles nine years out of 11. The Ravens will have to weigh all this along with physical abilities that inevitably dwindle after so many years.

Inevitably? Absolutely.

There came a time, during last summer's training camp, when a top Ravens official was asked about Lewis' future: Lewis was still the club's marquee player but no longer the utterly dominating force he was during their Super Bowl season.

"That's true," the official quickly acknowledged, "but Ray doesn't know it yet."

He still sees himself as the Lewis of old. In sports, psychology matters. But so does sheer muscle and bone, and the ability to chase down a running back sprinting around a corner.

"What happens," the Ravens official said, "is they lose it right away. You'll be watching them in practice and think, 'What's the matter with him? Is he hurt?' But it's not an injury, it's just the beginning of the end."

What Lewis showed this year is that, while he's not the player of the great Super Bowl season, neither is he done as a quality player. He was in on 117 tackles this year, 85 of them solo. He's a big-play guy, an intimidator.

But he'll be 34 before the Ravens hold their next training camp. Football's not like other sports. It's not like basketball, which still holds traces of the days when it was called a "no-contact" sport. And it's not like baseball where the finances are different. The Yankees can spend like there's no tomorrow; football has a salary cap. The Ravens have to determine if keeping Lewis means the triumph of sentiment over salary -- or if paying him big money precludes paying other stars what they're worth.

Lewis would probably like to stay here. This is where he's played his whole pro career, and his family has settled, and he's got off-field business connections. In Baltimore, he's the heart of modern football history.

This is also where Lewis was embraced after his involvement in a murder trial in Atlanta nine years ago. Ravens' fans embraced him and so did then-owner Art Modell. And, in the ensuing years, Lewis has fashioned a new off-field image as businessman, spokesman and mature leader.

Would any of this matter during contract negotiations? Try to remember another athlete whose reputation was tarnished: Roberto Alomar. After Alomar's spitting incident and his national disgrace, the only one who stood by his side was Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

And, the first chance Alomar got, he turned his back on everybody and bolted town.

Here's hoping for better days -- in Baltimore -- from Ray Lewis as his Ravens play Miami.


Injured players near return for Miami Heat

Forward James Jones (wrist) will travel with the team on its upcoming seven-game trip, and he is expected to practice or at least participate in contact drills and some five-on-five work.

''If you just came in and saw all of our noncontact drills you would think he is ready to go right now, which he is except the contact and the strength and the pulling and grabbing,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Saturday. ``We're going to ease him into that as his wrist gets 100 percent healthy.''