Edge providing some laughs

Running back Edgerrin James is slashing again for the Cardinals, and not just when he's carrying the football.

James provided some light moments after the team's workout in Tempe on Thursday, mostly about his benching and return to the lineup.

"It's kind of boring, that's the only thing," he said of his bench time. "You get bored standing around, and you have to learn sideline etiquette.

"You learn when to get up, when to move, where to stand. It's a new world."

For instance, he said when Larry Fitzgerald comes looking for the heater, he has to move. For most, he said "I've got a little seniority."

Somebody asked how the Eagles defense is different from the two defenses the Cardinals have faced in the playoffs.

"I don't know." James said, laughing, "I was by the heater the whole game. The first game, I was on the sidelines."

James is serious about his game and the NFC Championship, though. He said he kept practicing and working as usual until he was called upon again.


Ex-Panther Morgan opening 2 restaurants

Insert your own “tackling hunger” quip here: Former Carolina Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan and his wife, Ashleigh, are teaming with Charlotte-based restaurant consultants the BarFly Group to open a new pizzeria and a modern diner near StoneCrest in south Charlotte.

Cheese Mo'z, which they say will be the area's first coal-fired pizzeria, is slated to open in mid-February in the new Village at Robinson Farm development at Rea Road and Williams Pond Lane. Sweet T's, which is set to serve Southern-style comfort food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with cakes and pies for dessert, will debut next door later that month.

Morgan, 30, took his inspiration from Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, a chain he enjoyed in South Florida where he played for the University of Miami, said Kristy Weinberg, who owns the BarFly Group with husband Chris.

“Believe it or not for a big old football player, (Morgan) was very involved in the creation side,” she said, noting that he offered plenty of ideas about the restaurant's menu and decor. Cheese Mo'z will serve pizza, pasta, sandwiches, salads and wings in a casual, sit-down setting, and with a full bar and plenty of TVs (showing football, presumably, among other programming).


James fills huge roles in Cards' rise

One's career is on the rise, the other on the wane.

Larry Fitzgerald and Edgerrin James both fill crucial roles in the Arizona Cardinals' plans to beat Philadelphia on Sunday and advance, believe it or not, to the Super Bowl.

James, though, could be playing his last game for the Cardinals on Sunday. The 30-year-old running back, in his 10th NFL season, said two weeks ago he believes he and the team will part by mutual agreement.

The man who ranks 11th on the NFL's career rushing list was benched halfway through the season in favor of rookie Tim Hightower. But it didn't do much to help Arizona's woeful ground game. The Cardinals finished last in the league in rushing.

Whisenhunt brought James back in the regular-season finale against Seattle.

James rushed for 100 yards that day and has been solid, if not spectacular since. Any semblance of a running game helps clear the way for Warner and the potent Arizona passing game.

Whisenhunt said switching to Hightower gave the team the best chance to win. He said that the team would need James somewhere down the road. James wasn't sure that was true.

"I never knew," he said. "I just sat there and waited. I didn't know when I was getting in the game. I just made sure I went out and continued to practice and do what I've always done and not let whatever is going on take you from the type of player or person you are."

James stayed quiet, but his agent didn't. Drew Rosenhaus called general manager Rod Graves to ask that James be released. Graves said no, that such a move made no sense for the team.

Whisenhunt said he and James maintained a professional relationship, no matter what the agent was saying.

"I don't know if there was ever any real tension between Edgerrin and me," Whisenhunt said. "I know a lot of times he wasn't happy because he wasn't playing, and that's what you want. You want players like that. He has been respectful. ... I have a great deal of respect for him and what he has done for our team, especially in the latter part after going through a hard time."

James never made it to the Super Bowl despite all his success with Indianapolis. He does have a Super Bowl ring from owner Robert Irsay when the Colts won it all a year after James left and signed a free agent contract with Arizona.

James was asked if he ever pinched himself to see if it was true that he and the long downtrodden Cardinals were a win away from the Super Bowl.

No, he said, that came earlier in the season.

"I pinched myself on the sideline," he said. "I couldn't believe I was on the bench."


It’s official: Bills’ Parrish is more PR than WR

The Buffalo Bills’ Roscoe Parrish is a punt returner who sometimes catches passes. That’s not where his career his heading; rather, it’s where his career is and will be, as he’s been unable to show in any of his four seasons that he can be a credibly consistent threat on offense. His catch and a half per game in 2008 seems at first glance like the sort of total that would render him obscure and/or unemployed, but the Bills should be fine with burying him on the wideouts’ depth chart as long as he continues to top the league’s punt return depth chart.

The good news is that Parrish -- who averaged 15.3 yards on his 21 returns in 2008 -- remains sublime at what is nominally his second job. That rate, best in the NFL, put him an impressive 1.2 yards ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Clifton Smith, the second-place finisher; the significant margin is the equivalent of Parrish being the only player onscreen during a return, something he’s good for every couple of tries.

The Miami man not only came in first in the league this past season, he’s one place behind coming in first in history. Parrish stands at second all time in the category at 14.0 YPR; he’s a mere tenth of a yard behind Jim Cason, whom you may not remember as a safety for the San Francisco 49ers and a team in Los Angeles named the “Rams” during the 1940s and '50s.

Almost as unmemorable was Parrish’s time as a wideout last season, as he gained a paltry 232 yards. That was good for a bad sixth on the team in receiving yardage, as he was sandwiched between tight ends Robert Royal and Derek Schouman. Even less impressive was the fact that Parrish’s 9.7 yards per reception tied him with rookie James Hardy for worst among wide receivers; Parrish would have actually finished third among tight ends, as both Royal and Schouman got themselves to double-digit yardage averages per reception. Parrish generally used his renowned velocity in very, very short bursts on offense.

Had the defense forced a few more three-and-outs, Parrish might have made more returns than catches in 2008; as it stands, his 24 receptions means he only finished three ahead in terms of his quantity contribution on offense. Factor in his 10 fair catches, and Parrish was actually busier on possession changes than on possessions.

That fact makes his role easy to define. He’ll only be 27 in July, but he’ll be preparing for his fifth season by the time that birthday arrives. What he, and we, should accept by then is that Parrish is a better track athlete than footballer, as he needs open space to get up to his notoriously high speed.

While elite receivers can get up to pace in a matter of a handful of strides, middling wideouts need more ground. Parrish falls into the latter category, but that’s why he’s been great at winning field-position battles. If he can make one gunner miss on a punt return, he can get enough field in front of him to get motoring. The fact that bringing back punts is a skill that’s closer to a dash than a pass route makes him better at his other task.

Parrish has emerged as a player good for a special teams touchdown per season, getting one in each of the past three campaigns, and maybe one or two more as a member of the offense, amassing five of those over his career. But that’s it. Arguing that J.P. Losman will open under center for the Bills in 2009 is only slightly more outrageous than thinking Parrish is finally going to break through on offense.

His best hope for notoriety is to overtake the top punt returner ever. As with Cason, Parrish is more likely to end up as a football trivia answer and not as an unforgettable icon. That’s fine, as long as both he and the team accept that he’s a special teams specialist who makes the occasional catch.

Think of the second-best punt returner all time in the same way as the best kicking coverage man all time: Steve Tasker, who had 51 career receptions and 10 over his first 10 seasons, provides an ideal example of how saving certain players for special teams might just be a good strategy. It’s not like Parrish is going to suddenly emerge as a player worthy of being Lee Evans’ tag team partner, so the Bills may as well happy with 20 or 30 catches from him as long as he’s only below adequate in one of his two areas.


Hester Watch

Devin Hester was the Bears' most watched player going into training camp after two dominant seasons as a return specialist. He signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension that required him to reach lofty benchmarks as a receiver through 2011 to earn the full value.

Hester got off to a good start in that endeavor, leading the Bears with 665 yards on 51 catches. Meanwhile, his performance as a return specialist tailed off shockingly.

After 13 special-teams scores through two seasons, Hester had none in 2008. He eventually yielded the kickoff-return duties to Danieal Manning.

"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."


Warren Sapp Interviews Ray Lewis

Dolphins Interested in Carey

Since the season ended, the Dolphins conveyed interest in re-signing Carey (haven't talked numbers), but haven't contacted Crowder's agent. (Crowder rejected an earlier offer.) Talks with Bell are ongoing.


Ronnie Lott on Ed Reed

“Here’s where Ed Reed is better than I was or better than Kenny Easley or better than any safety who played the game. When he gets his hands on the ball after making an interception, he is no longer a defensive player running with the ball. He is an offensive player. It’s not just that he’s fast or quick, he knows how to run once he has the ball. He knows how to set up his blockers and he knows what moves to make. It’s like he’s Barry Sanders running with the ball.”

“He is a good hitter. He can really strike. Maybe I hit a little bit harder but it’s not like Reed is deficient in that area. He plays the run well. He tackles and he can cover. But what separates him from everybody who has played the position is his ability with the ball in his hands.

“I really take note of it because it was something I wanted to do when I was playing. I wanted to make the moves Reed does when he has the ball. I couldn’t do that. He can."

“I don’t think Ed Reed has to take a back seat to anybody who ever played the position. ANYBODY.”


Ball-hawking Reed is greatest safety of all time

When the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, they'll try to attack perceived weak spots in the Baltimore defense, but they'll always keep one thing in mind: Ed Reed is out there.

Reed, a seven-year pro, is the best safety who has ever played. He's a game-changing player with a knack for big plays. If he's not intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, he's stripping opponents of the football, then returning the fumble for a score.

“I won’t go to his side of the field,” says one AFC offensive coordinator. “I know what he can do and I’ve seen it too many times. I’m not that stupid that I’m going to continue to challenge him. It just doesn’t make sense.”

No, it doesn't.

Reed's nine interceptions led the league, and matched his career high for a single season. His 16 pass deflections also were a career best. From a Week 12 win against the Eagles through a wild-card victory over Miami, Reed picked off two passes in a single game five times. If there was a play to be made, Reed made it.

Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs calls Reed “the greatest safety of all-time,” while receiver Mark Clayton thinks Reed was the league's MVP.
"He deserves every bit of praise that comes his way,” Clayton says.

Reed belong among a elite group of Hall of Fame safeties such as Larry Wilson, Willie Wood, Ken Houston, Mel Renfro, Emlen Tunnell and Dick Anderson and modern standouts like Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley. And, like those greats, there is no preening, no pointing and no dancing that go with Reed’s game.

Instead, he combines outstanding physical ability with great preparation. He always knows an opponent's tendencies. He studies hours of film each week, which gives him a mental edge to go with his talent.

Former safety Dave Duerson won Super Bowls when he played with the Bears and Giants in the 1980s and in 1990. Coaches like Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and Bill Parcells demanded tough, physical play and expected meticulous preparation. Duerson says Reed's preparation is what sets him apart.

“Without any doubt, he's the best safety in today's game,” Duerson says. “Ed is always in position to make a play, because he has a knack for studying the opponent, and recognizing the adjustments they will make depending on down and distance.

“Where Ed is unique is in what he does, after he gets his hands on the ball. He always goes for the strip as soon as he makes contact. This may allow a runner to get a little bit of extra yardage, but he won’t get away. Ed is a very sure tackler.”

Many compare Reed to Lott because the 49ers legend was another game-changing safety, but the two have different styles. Lott was known as a ferocious hitter who used his 6-foot, 205-pound frame punish ball carriers with a cracking hits.

Reed doesn't shy away from contact, but his strength is playing the ball in the air. He has 43 career interceptions in just seven seasons and has had only one season with fewer than five picks. At that rate, he'll have a shot at Paul Krause's career interception record of 81.

He's a threat to snag any pass lofted his way, which is usually in the minds of opposing quarterbacks. As a result, Reed's one of those players whose stats sometimes don't reflect his impact because teams stay away from him.

Take it from one of the game's offensive icons, 49ers great Jerry Rice — no one wants to head in Reed's direction.

“First of all, he’s going to stop the receiver from catching the ball,” Rice says. “But if he has any opportunity to make a play on the ball and catch it, he will. He has great hands.”

In many ways, Reed’s play is similar to Wood's, who starred for Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960’s, and Dick Anderson, who did the same for Don Shula’s Dolphins in the 1970's.

Both were outstanding athletes who excelled because they understood their opponents tendencies. Wood used his instincts and experience to bait opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. Anderson's speed also gave him an edge.

All of great safeties have an understanding of timing. They know how to set up a receiver or a quarterback by allowing a short catch or two early and then taking it away with a big pick later in the game.

Reed has that ability, and showcases it throughout the season. As the best safety in NFL history, his presence gives the Ravens a distinct advantage in every game.


Ravens' Ray Lewis not fooled by Big Ben

While his teammates were cavorting in the visitors locker room last Saturday night at Tennessee, where the Baltimore Ravens had just dispatched the Titans to advance to this weekend's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, linebacker Ray Lewis instead studied his shoes.

Fine shoes to compliment a fine suit. So when he laced them up, he made certain he did so with precision. The near-pandemonium behind him? No matter. There were shoes to be laced. Left one, then the right one. One minute. Two minutes. Still lacing.

So meticulous. So serene.

So ... been there, done that.

Lewis happens to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.

He's been there.

He's done that.

And now that the Ravens are in prime position to reach Super status again, something the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a thing or two to say about, Lewis — he of the famous pregame gyrations just before the team takes the field — is something of a steady Eddie.

Here we go again.

Two losses in the regular season to the Steelers already.

Untied laces.

There was the 23-20 road overtime loss in late September and the 13-9 setback last month.

From Lewis, a determined yawn.

"We always have got one philosophy in this defense," he says. "If they don't score, they don't win. Bottom line."

In that way of thinking, then, the losses to the Steelers surely sting.

Right, Ray?

"Not at all, he said this week. "As soon as the game was over, you are over it. You don't dwell on it too much in this business. You take your good with your bad, and you move on. You grab your corrections, and after you grab your corrections, you make sure it doesn't happen again."

Still, chief among Lewis' tasks this weekend will be grabbing the guy across the line.

The quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger.

"He's the ultimate competitor," Lewis says. "He plays football the way old-school people play football — just make a play. It doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't have to be drawn up, sit in the pocket and pass the ball like the conventional quarterback.

"He's a football player. He's going to go out and do anything to keep his team motivated and keep the chains moving, things like that. And that's probably one of the greatest assets he has, is really keeping the play going."

One could say he plays the dunce — and does so very well.

So hints defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

"It's just kind of deceiving because he looks big and slow and doesn't look like he can move around," he says. "He bends in weird ways and gets out of things. It's pretty crazy how he does it, and we just have to make sure we get him down when we get a hold of him."

Meanwhile, Lewis ties his shoes.

And in doing so, he sends a message to the newbies.

"I think that's what our whole season has been about," he says. "Our whole season has been about just chemistry. A lot of people don't know that really when you look at our ball club and the way we practice and look at the things that we do, we prepare a certain way with each other.

"Coaches give us the game plan and give us their part of it, but our part is being accountable to each other. We have more guys over at each other's houses than anything. There's nothing that we couldn't go through during the course of the season, whether it was not having a bye week, this and that, this person is hurt, that person is hurt… But the togetherness and the brotherhood we have is kind of more overwhelming than anything."


A sign Chudzinski fared well in 49ers interview

The 49ers' decision to interview former Browns quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer tells us the team thinks highly of Rob Chudzinski as its potential offensive coordinator.

Chudzinski, who recently interviewed for the coordinating job, worked closely with Scherer in Cleveland. The 49ers would not consider Scherer as a potential quarterbacks coach without feeling good about Chudzinski as coordinator.

While the 49ers want the best coordinator they can get, they also want to develop continuity on offense after frequently changing coordinators in recent seasons. If they hired Chudzinski as coordinator and groomed Scherer for the job in case Chudzinski left after a couple seasons, the 49ers could feel more confident about maintaining stability at the position.

Something to keep in mind as the 49ers move closer to filling out Mike Singletary's staff.


Astros ink ex-Reds closer Graves, four others

The Astros signed five players to minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training today: righthanders Jose Capellan, Danny Graves and Chad Paronto, and catchers Brian Esposito and Toby Hall. Righthander Sergio Perez was also invited to spring training.

Graves, 35, was 6-6 with one save and a 6.01 ERA in 36 combined games (16 starts) with Class A Fort Myers, Class AA New Britain and Class AAA Rochester of the Minnesota Twins organization. Graves is 43-44 with 182 saves and a 4.05 ERA in 518 career games with Cleveland (1996-97, 2006), Cincinnati (1997-2005) and the New York Mets (2005).


Addition Of Burrell Is Applauded

ST. PETERSBURG - No one has to convince James Shields about new addition Pat Burrell's potential worth to the Rays. His memories of three battles with Burrell in Game 2 of the World Series remain fresh.

"It was funny, I was telling my dad a month or two ago that the hardest guy on the Phillies to face for me was Burrell, because he just grinded every single at-bat," Shields said Wednesday. "I think I threw 14 pitches an at-bat to him, it seemed like. He's not scared to take his walks, he's a very patient hitter, he wants to get his pitch. He'll foul pitches off just to get that one pitch. I think he's going to be really good for our team."

Shields wasn't alone in his assessment among the Rays gathered at Tropicana Field on Wednesday morning for an informal workout. The team's offseason acquisitions were universally applauded by the incumbents.

"I think it's awesome," Evan Longoria said. "It proves, definitely, that we're trying to be a contender in a league where that's very tough to do, especially with the two, three, four big-market teams we have in this league.

"But it definitely does show a step forward for the organization as far as the money they're going to spend and what they're going to do to try to make this a winning franchise."

B.J. Upton likes the thought of Burrell serving as the DH in a batting order that already has plenty of depth.

"Definitely a big bat for the middle of that lineup," Upton said. "He can bring us 20-plus home runs, and any time you can add that to your lineup, it's big. Especially when you add it to the speed we've got and the guys we've already got here, that's going to play a big part in what we do this year."


Ex-NFL player opts for Border Patrol career

EL PASO -- The dream career for some people would be to play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears or the Washington Redskins.

For Jamaal Green, who once was a defensive end for all three teams, his dream was to one day work in law enforcement. His dream became a reality on Feb. 17, 2008, when he became a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the El Paso area.

"A lot of kids look up to professional athletes as heroes," said Green, who currently works at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Montana Avenue heading towards Carlsbad. "Me, I looked up to law enforcement officers as heroes."

Green, who was born and raised in Camden, N.J., said it was never his boyhood dream to play football. He started playing football during his junior year at Woodrow Wilson High School at the urging of one of the team's coaches.

"He saw I had some kind of athletic ability and he saw how big I was," said the 6-foot-3-inch former athlete. "I picked up the game pretty well."
Green was so successful on his team, he was named to the New Jersey All-State first team. His success also earned him a full scholarship to the University of Miami, where he lead his team in sacks and helped win a national championship in 2001 during the Rose Bowl game against Nebraska.

But after he was picked during the fourth round of the 2003 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, he was plagued by a rash of preseason injuries.

"I was five minutes away from where I grew up. It was my hometown team and everybody was excited," Green said. "During my third preseason game, I broke my right fibula and I tore a ligament. I have a plate and seven screws in my leg right now. That injury caused me to miss my whole first season in the NFL."

Green was heartbroken but determined to come back in time for the next season, but was injured again during the preseason.

"I was fortunate enough to come back and have three good games in a row," Green said. "I was projected to be one of the starters (in the next year)."

Those expectations were shattered when Green was injured again during the preseason. After earning an NFC Championship ring with the Eagles, he was released and picked up by the Chicago Bears, but after yet another preseason injury. he was released and joined the Washington Redskins.

It was during a home game with the Redskins that, during a pregame show, Green discovered the U.S. Border Patrol.

"The Border Patrol was at the game doing a pregame show with the National Anthem. They were saluting at the game, and that was the first time I've ever seen the Border Patrol," Green said.

Green, who majored in criminology at the University of Miami, said his wife, Nailah, knew about the agency and once thought about applying there.

"I looked up the Border Patrol and found out what they wanted to accomplish," Green said.

After growing up in Camden and seeing first-hand how drugs and gangs could destroy families, Green said he could make a difference in combating those problems by becoming a Border Patrol agent.

"It's one thing to be talking about it, and another thing to do something and prevent it," Green said.

Moving to El Paso has also given the Green family a better opportunity at a safer upbringing. Green and his wife have two children, a son Jahaan, 2, and a daughter Jahzara, 1.

"It's great being a lot further away from places like (Camden) to raise kids," Green said. "It's a good thing to be able to move out here to a safer city and have a better chance at a decent life. It's a lot better."

At least three Camden natives have had the same idea. Green said he's run into three people in El Paso who also attended Woodrow Wilson High School.

Many of Green's coworkers have asked Green why he gave up the glamourous life of an NFL player to become an agent. While at the Border Patrol academy, Green said he received calls from the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Texans with offers to join their respective practice squads, but Green declined.

"They (co-workers) said 'That's crazy that you would do that, leave your dream to come to the Border Patrol,' " Green said. "I tell them that was never my dream. It was a quick way for me to earn a free ride to school. I stayed in football long enough to get out of there safe. In my position (as defensive end), it's so brutal that by the age of 45 you might not be able to walk straight. My health is more important than the extra money."
For the most part, Green has been welcomed with open arms by his fellow agents and his superiors.

"Agent Green is representative of our expanded recruitment efforts that continue to be conducted throughout the nation," said El Paso Sector Chief Patrol Agent Victor M. Manjarrez Jr. "His background speaks highly of the quality of our employees and the varied work experiences that support our national strategy of protecting our nation's borders."


Which Raven will be the biggest concern for the Steelers' offense?

John Clayton: This may sound surprising, but I think Ed Reed is more of a worry than Ray Lewis. Lewis is a leader and he's playing so well behind Haloti Ngata, but Reed is the player on the Ravens' defense who could frustrate the Steelers' offense with an interception or two. Roethlisberger has to be wary of turnovers. Scoring will be tough, so he can't give the Ravens the chance for easy scores. Reed might be able to confuse him with some coverages and steal an interception or two. Lewis no doubt will be the main guy in trying to stop the Steelers' running game. But turnovers could determine this game, and Reed has been a turnover machine in the past eight weeks. Roethlisberger has to keep the ball away from Reed.

James Walker: You never cease to amaze me, John, because I was thinking the same thing. Reed's private nature doesn't get him the superstar treatment and the media attention that he deserves. But opponents know he's the first player they must be aware of. Here is a stat to support that argument: Baltimore is 4-0 this year when Reed scores a defensive touchdown. He is the biggest defensive game-changer in the NFL. Lewis and the front seven are going to be tough to run on. So at some point, Roethlisberger will have to test Reed's prowess through the air.


On the Mark: Give Ray Lewis his due

Eight years later, Ray Lewis has a chance to return to the Super Bowl. And that chance begets yet another: an opportunity to be recognized as the best defensive player in the NFL. Not this year. Not this decade. Ever.

It's a difficult, if not impossible proposition, comparing defensive players. Reliable statistics for tackles didn't exist before 1994, according to STATS INC. And what of the tackles a player didn't make because offenses ran or threw the other way? How to measure that?

In Lewis' case, a qualitative standard is in order. His supporting cast may change. Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs were still in college when Lewis earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXV. This year's team features rookies at head coach and quarterback. Still, now as ever, the Ravens get by with just enough offense. Ray Lewis makes that possible. For more than a decade, he has been at the very center — literally, metaphorically, emotionally — of a great defense.

I'm not telling you to like the guy. For many, the perception of Ray Lewis was indelibly framed early in 2000, when he was indicted for the stabbing death of two men following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta. Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction charges, and testified against his former friends, both of whom were acquitted. In short order, Lewis was comparing himself to another unjustly persecuted man, Jesus Christ.

In the years since, Lewis has tried to refurbish his image through charitable works. Does that make him an undercover thug or a man of God? I don't know. I'm not telling you not to hate him, either. Just understand that his teammates love him. Always have. You've never heard a guy who played with Ray Lewis come back to knock him. He has a quality most often attributed to great point guard and quarterbacks, an ability to raise the game of those around him. As it pertains to both defense and leadership, he sets the standard.

There are others who warrant mention in this 'best-ever' debate. But hitters tend to fade fast. Jack Lambert played his last full season at 31. Dick Butkus, long considered the standard for middle linebackers, was finished by 31 as well. Butkus never even made the playoffs. What's more, as Sean Lahman points out in The Pro Football Historical Abstract, the Butkus Bears "finished in the bottom half of the NFL's defenses five out of nine seasons."

Junior Seau, who came up in 1990, has more tackles than Lewis. But he never won a Super Bowl, much less the game's coveted MVP award. Mike Singletary is an interesting choice, but the success of his teams had as much to do with Walter Payton as anyone. Lawrence Taylor, of course, forever changed the game, making outside linebacker a glamour position. But for all of Taylor's dramatic talent, he was also a scab and a coke-head, not exactly what one looks for in a teammate.

As Lewis goes, so go the Ravens. According to STATS INC., in '96, when he was drafted, Baltimore was ranked 30th, dead last, in yards allowed. By '99, they were second. The intervening years — except for 2002, when an injured shoulder limited Lewis to only five games — have seen the Ravens finish no worse than sixth.

Despite a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback, this was in many ways a typical year for Baltimore. Lewis is in his 13th season (LT, it's worth mentioning, retired after 13), his tenth as a Pro Bowler, his sixth as a first-team All-Pro. The Ravens, second in yards allowed, have another chance at the Super Bowl. At 33, Lewis is also tied for the lead in tackles in these playoffs.

But again, I'm trying to measure what can't be quantified. You can't figure Ray Lewis by the numbers. You can only acknowledge that which he instills in friend and foe, a legacy of equal parts, fear and respect.


The Hester debate rages on

I wanted to bring you an additional nugget from Brendon Ayanbadejo's interview with WMVP-AM radio in Chicago, the one we referred to earlier Tuesday morning.

Ayanbadejo became one of the first "football people" to acknowledge what some fans and media members suggested for much of the season: It was unreasonable for Chicago to ask Devin Hester to continue as an elite kickoff/punt returner while making him a full-time receiver.

(Ayanbadejo spent three seasons with the Bears before moving to Baltimore via free agency last winter.)

Here's the full text of what Ayanbadejo said Monday:

''You can't expect to have the best receiver in the league and the best returner in the league. It's such a specialized league. Just look at the Ravens -- we have three kickers. We have a guy who does kickoffs, a guy that does field goals and a punter. You're asking [Hester] to be the best punt returner in the league, the best kick returner in the league and the best receiver in the league? ... They asked a whole lot of Devin, which I thought was kind of unfair.''

We all know the story: The Bears eventually pulled Hester as a kickoff returner and he finished the season ranked No. 57 overall among NFL punt returners with a 6.7-yard average. Worse, his longest punt return was 25 yards. Hester did catch a career-high 51 passes on offense, tops among Bears receivers, but clearly reasonable people can debate whether that contribution was worth a decrease in special teams performance.

It will be interesting to watch the Bears' offseason relative to Hester. Will they carry the same plan into 2009, hoping that a year's worth of experience will make him more efficient in all areas? Should they abandon his special-teams role altogether? Or should they augment the receiving corps and reduce their dependence on Hester as an every-down wideout?


Michael Irvin: Would-Be Carjackers Recognized Me

A former Dallas Cowboy said he was nearly carjacked Monday night -- until the would-be robbers recognized him.

Michael Irvin said he was driving to the gym when robbers pulled alongside him and flashed a gun at him along Marsh Lane near the Bush turnpike at about 9 p.m.

"Absolutely I was afraid," he said. "I was very afraid."

Irvin, who was driving a new, white Range Rover, said a truck followed him to a stoplight.

"I was looking in my rearview, and I saw this black truck flying up behind me," he said.

The passenger rolled down his window and pointed a gun at him. Irvin said his work on the field may have saved his life -- because the would-be carjacker recognized him.

"He put it away, because he recognized me. He said, 'Hey, Mike Irvin, what's up? Mike Irving, man, we are big Cowboy fans,'" Irvin said.

Irvin, who was known as "The Playmaker," said he knew his next play may be his most important one yet. He followed the man's lead and started talking about the Cowboys.

"And I was like, 'Yeah man, you know, I miss playing, and boy, I'm sorry we couldn't win a Super Bowl this year,' because I'm just trying to get his mind on something else so he doesn't pull that gun back up again," Irvin said.

He said his pistol-packing fans sped off after several minutes.

"I was like, 'Wow, you were a coward there, Michael,'" he said. "Even when he pulled off, I still did not get that license plate."

Irvin said he is thanking God for his life  -- and his legacy with the Dallas Cowboys.

"'I'm a huge Cowboy fan' -- it never sounded so sweet before like it did last night, even coming from him," he said.

Irvin, a husband and father of four, said he went home and hugged his wife and children, saying it never felt so good.

Police said they do not have any suspects in the case.


Report: Mets ink INF Cora

Free agent Alex Cora has reportedly agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Mets.

Cora kept waiting around to see if the Red Sox would trade Julio Lugo and open up a spot for him, but it looks like Boston will go with Lugo as its utilityman. Cora is a decent enough choice for the Mets as a replacement for Damion Easley.


Huff Daddy

In an attempt to follow last winter's routine, which led to one of his finest seasons, Aubrey Huff has done just about everything the exact same way - which means he's pretty much done nothing.

Huff didn't undergo another sports hernia surgery or create more satellite controversy, but otherwise, it's been a carbon copy.

"I haven't really done much," he said yesterday during a phone conversation. "I'm trying to follow last year's program. I pretended that I had surgery and I'm laying low. I'm stretching and doing cardio right now. That's all I did last year and that's what I'm doing now."

Huff plans on starting his weight training with some light lifting around Feb. 1, just like last year. And he won't pick up a bat until he gets to spring training, just like last year.

"I feel great. I feel refreshed," he said. "Actually, I'm getting antsy. I'm ready to get down there."

In the meantime, Huff has been preoccupied with purchasing 35 acres of land in Evergreen, Colo., where he'll build his dream house.

"My wife and I always go out there at some point and go winter vacationing. It's just gorgeous out there," he said.

Huff found the time to once again appear on the Tampa-based "Bubba the Love Sponge" radio show, but the content was much more acceptable to the Orioles' brass. And this time, he didn't create an uproar in Baltimore by slamming the city.

Not everything should be duplicated, even after you've been named Most Valuable Oriole.

"They signed a new Sirius radio deal and you can't cuss anymore, so I couldn't get in trouble on that one," he said, laughing. "They're all clean now."

I'll have more from Huff in my next entry, including his thoughts on the Orioles' $140 million pursuit of free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and his strong desire to be the starter.


More Huff, and the bench

Aubrey Huff doesn't necessarily pay close attention to everything that's reported in the papers and over the internet, especially during the winter months, but he was part of a captive audience during the Mark Teixeira negotiations.

"I just thought it was ridiculous, the whole media thing," he said.

"You never really know what's going on behind closed doors, but it didn't seem like he was ever going to sign with Baltimore, the way it looked. It seemed like he was holding out for a bigger deal and I couldn't see him signing for $140 million with all that other money out there."

And that suited Huff perfectly, since he wants to be the starting first baseman this season. He could appreciate all that Teixeira had to offer, but he also had to look out for himself.

"Obviously, with him in the lineup, there would be a lot of protection, and he's a guy who gets on base and has a lot of power, but at the same time, I'd really like to play first base this year. I'm sure I wouldn't have started over him," Huff said.

"I just hope I get a legitimate shot at first this year. That's certainly what I expect, as of now - to be the starting first baseman. And I hope that's the course of action. I certainly don't think I embarrassed myself at first or third.

"I don't mind being the DH. It's cool. But every day, it gets old. You want to be out there every now and then."

Huff was happy to find out that Chris Gomez agreed to terms on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.

"Go-Go's back. I love him," Huff said. "He's a great clubhouse guy and he's a guy who can play anywhere in the infield. That's a good signing for us. He's like a fine wine. He gets better with age."

Gomez has to make the team first, and that's not a certainty. As The Sun reported yesterday, the Orioles signed Jolbert Cabrera to a minor league deal, and he'll compete with Gomez and Donnie Murphy for a utility job.


NFLU Divisional Playoff Wkd Video Highlights and Photos

Check out the return of our NFL U Video Highlights. Like we did back in 2006, proCanes.com 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 Divisional Playoff Weekend Video Highlights or click above on NFL U Video Highlights. Enjoy this week's highlights which feature Ray Lewis, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, Antrel Rolle, and more!

Check out Divisional Playoff Weekend photos from around the the NFL of our proCanes. Click here to see the photos.

Former UM star gets coaching job

When spring football practice begins this year, Northeast will have a former NFL talent guiding the program.

Northeast athletic director Dave Phillips confirmed on Friday that Donnell Bennett has been hired as the school's new coach.

Bennett, a Fort Lauderdale native, was a second-round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994. He was a running back at the University of Miami and played at Cardinal Gibbons.

Bennett has been an assistant coach at Gibbons, and Phillips said this would be his first high school head coaching position.

"We're extremely excited and feel so fortunate to have him," Phillips said. "It's good for not just our student-athletes, but all the students at our school. He's a role model who has succeeded at every level."

Bennett replaces former coach Adam Ratkevich who stepped down after eight seasons with the Hurricanes. Northeast was 6-4 last season.


Top-Five Cardinals Proven Truths

4. Antrel Rolle is a right place, right time kind of guy: One week after a time fumbled recovery for a touchdown changed the game, Rolle found himself the benefactor of a tipped pass. Rolle has a knack for being an opportunistic defender and rarely misses a chance to grab a loose or tipped ball.


Forgotten James rediscovers his game

During an eight-game stretch starting in Week Nine, Arizona Cardinals veteran running back Edgerrin James was a virtual non-entity as a backup to rookie Tim Hightower.

James was not happy sitting on the bench and made his displeasure known in no uncertain terms, asking to be released following a 35-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams on November 16.

Arizona declined James' demand, and now he might want to rethink his position.

After being limited to 11 carries in that eight-game span, the former Indianapolis Colts standout regained his starting role in Week 17 and has helped fuel the Cardinals' surprising run to the NFC championship game.

"I got some adversity," James said. "Did I deserve adversity? No, I'll never agree with that. But the thing about it is, this is where I am at, this is what I signed up for. You sign up with an NFL team, you take the good with the bad."

On January 3, the Cardinals hosted their first home playoff game since 1947, defeating Atlanta, 30-24, in a wild-card contest.

Arizona then went to Carolina and knocked off the second-seeded Panthers, 33-13, in a divisional playoff game Saturday. The Cardinals received an added bonus Sunday when Philadelphia, the No. 6 seed, ousted the No. 1 seed and defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 23-11.

That means Arizona gets to host Philadelphia next week with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line.

The Cardinals will be looking to avenge a 48-20 loss at Philadelphia on Thanksgiving - one of three games this season in which James did not receive a single carry.

Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt joked that there was a method behind his madness to bench James.

"It was planned all along," Whisenhunt said. "We knew if we gave him a couple weeks off, he'd be ready to go at the end of the season."

After five straight 1,000-yard campaigns in Indianapolis and Arizona, James was limited to 133 carries and career-low 514 yards this year.

However, he never thought he couldn't still be a productive runner.

"If I got to the point where I couldn't play, I would've just go home," said James, who turned 30 before the start of the season.

"But it didn't get to that point. I love to play the game and I'm not going to be somebody who is going to be a sore loser. I want to be somebody that regardless of how things went, I want to try and man up and stand there and not pout about things."

James finally got a another start in the regular-season finale against Seattle and ran for a 100 yards on just 14 yards against the league's worst rushing team.

"He never went in the tank on us," Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.

James rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries against Atlanta in the playoff opener, then added 57 yards on 20 carries at Carolina. Much of that total came in the first half when the Cardinals surged to a 27-7 lead.

Now the 10-year veteran is one step away from a trip to the Super Bowl - something that eluded him after he left Indianapolis to sign with Arizona in 2006. The Colts capped that season by beating Chicago, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.


Everett proof that miracles can happen

Devin Hebert's pass got tipped. A defender intercepted it. Hebert hustled to make the tackle. Something then went terribly wrong.
Hebert felt his own neck snap. Then he felt nothing else.

"I knew I was paralyzed, but I wasn't crying. I just kind of had a sad voice and didn't know what to do," he told Michael Sudhalter of the Houston Community Newspapers.

Since the tragedy, Hebert, a 16-year-old junior varsity quarterback at Jersey Village High near Houston, has befriended a former NFL tight end and fellow Texan named Kevin Everett.

Everett sees Hebert, paralyzed from the waist down, and realizes, "there but for the grace of God go I."

Hebert sees Everett and tells him, "I want to become like you one day."

Three thousand times a year in high school football and lower levels, severe neck injuries occur, though not all as devastating as Herbert's trauma. It happens less frequently in college, or in the National Football League.

That's where it happened to Kevin Everett, who visited Huntsville Friday at the behest of The Orthopedic Center and its partners. He was accompanied by a wise-cracking, dice-rolling doctor named Andrew Cappucino, who didn't merely help Everett walk again, but kept him alive with treatment that was equal parts genius and gamble.

Everett's story may be relatively familiar to football fans. He was a tight end for the Buffalo Bills. On Sept. 9, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., he was covering the second-half kickoff and tackled the Broncos' Dominik Hixon on a collision so fierce "I thought a gun had gone off," remembered Cappucino, one of the Bills' team physicians.

Everett lay face down on the field, motionless. Fortunately, Cappucino, a spine specialist, had recently conducted a "refresher course" on spinal injuries with the Bills' training staff. Everyone responded perfectly to Everett's injury.

Controversial treatment

Cappucino then opted for a controversial method of treatment in which Everett's body was essentially turned into a human refrigerator coil. His body temperature was lowered drastically to reduce swelling around the injury.

Still, thought Cappucino, "He's never going to walk again. And he might be on a respirator the rest of his life."

But Everett, conscious though struggling to breathe, said, "Do whatever you have to do because I'm going to beat this."

Everett underwent surgery. Screws and plates were placed in his neck. ("He now picks up FM radio on a routine basis," joked Cappucino.) Within two days, nurses noticed Everett's legs moving. Within three days, he was off the respirator.

Today, Kevin Everett walks.

There's still some tingling in his extremities. His feet grow numb if he's stands for too long. But there are few, if any, visible clues to his injury. He's traveling the country, helping raise money for the Kevin Everett Foundation, which helps low-income families cope with the vast expense incurred after serious spinal injuries.

Devin Hebert has it right. Maybe we all should want to become like Everett one day.

In the world of sport, there's a word that gets bandied about recklessly. Miracle. A miracle comeback. A miracle basket. A miracle is worth a million but we treat it like a nickel. We've cheapened it. Not Everett.

"When you mention miracle," Everett said, "the first thing you've got to take into consideration is God. This could have been a lot worse. But God spares you. And there was the timing of it all. ... And my doctors and staff and everybody who took a part in my surgery and recovery to get me to where I am today, where I feel normal. That's a miracle."

There's one more miracle. Maybe two.

Devin Hebert went home from the hospital two weeks ago.

Four weeks ago, Kevin's wife Wiande came home from the hospital with the couple's first child, a daughter, Famatta

"It's a beautiful thing," said Everett. "A beautiful thing."


James nets 66 yards in upset win

Edgerrin James rushed 20 times for 57 yards and a touchdown as the Cardinals upset the Panthers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. He also caught one nine-yard pass.
James didn't have a run over seven yards, but he did a fine job of falling forward at the end of runs and kept drives alive as the Cardinals nursed their big lead. He'll have a tough time breaking free next week against either the Eagles or Giants, but should remain the Cardinals' feature back.


McGahee's perseverance impresses Harbaugh

It took 15 games, but Willis McGahee finally demonstrated why Coach John Harbaugh regularly had praised the running back who had struggled mightily this season.

McGahee had by far his best game of the year on Saturday against the Cowboys, as his 77-yard run with fewer than four minutes remaining was pivotal in a 33-24 victory. This season, McGahee has rushed for 647 yards and six touchdowns on 166 carries after amassing 1,207 yards last year to earn his first invitation to the Pro Bowl.

Fullback Le'Ron McClain has taken over as the primary running back, and leads the team with 832 yards and eight touchdowns on 207 carries. McClain, in his second year, will play in his first Pro Bowl in February.

"Willis has handled the whole season well," Harbaugh said. "It's been disappointing because this season has just not worked out with how many carries and yards he expected to have. But to me, the most measurable thing that has shown is the character he has expressed through this whole thing."


Texans WR Johnson named to NFL All-Pro team

As Texans receiver Andre Johnson was shattering his own personal records and leading the league in receptions and yards this season, he admitted he felt that he was the best receiver in the NFL.

Friday, it was clear he is hardly alone in his opinion. For the first time in his career, Johnson was named to the Associated Press' prestigious All-Pro team by receiving 45 of the 50 votes cast by sportswriters and broadcasters across the country.

Johnson was one of 15 first-timers named to the team, and he fell just five votes shy of being a unanimous selection. Only Vikings running back Adrian Peterson garnered as many votes on offense as Johnson.

Baltimore safety Ed Reed was the only player on either side of the ball to receive 50 votes.

"To be honest, I don't know what it is, but I do feel like I am the best receiver in the NFL," Johnson said. "Like I said before, everyone has their own opinion. I have a right to my own opinion.

"I also think there are a lot of great other wide receivers out there. I'm a big fan of those guys and I love to watch those guys play. I'm pretty sure they would tell you the same thing. They feel like they are the best receiver in the NFL and they love watching other guys play.

"I really don't try to get caught up in that. I just try to let my play doing the talking."

Johnson led the NFL with 115 catches and 1,575 yards, becoming the first receiver to lead the league in both categories since Chad Johnson in 2005. Johnson also caught 10 or more passes in seven games, which set a new NFL record.

Johnson said part of the reason for his success was that he focused on getting more yards after the catch. He also said he benefited from the fact that coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moved him around more on the field instead of just lining him up out wide on every play.

"I remember the first day I met (Kubiak), he came up to me and told me, 'I'd like you to catch 100 balls,'" Johnson said. "I never thought in a million years I'd catch 100 balls after going through what I went through before he got here. The most catches I had before he got here were 79. When he told me that, I believed him. But at the same time in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'Maybe he's just talking.'

"But it happened (in 2006). And the next year I started off great, but was injured. Then this year, I was able to stay healthy and was given in the opportunity and showed what I could do with those opportunities."

Johnson joined Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald as the only two receivers on the All-Pro team, and he became only the second Texan to receive the prestigious honor. Jerome Mathis was named All-Pro first team as a kick returner in 2005. Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans were second-team selections last year.

Johnson said he will enter next season trying to top what he accomplished this year, but that there are no specific numbers he will target.

"I don't set personal goals anymore," Johnson said. "My goal is getting this organization to the playoffs. That's always going to be my goal until it happens."


McGahee finds success in relief of McClain

Willis McGahee rushed 12 times for 32 yards and added one reception for four yards against the Titans in the Divisional Round playoffs.
McGahee was used as a strict third-down back early, but he picked up carries after LeRon McClain suffered an ankle injury. The stats won't jump off the page, but McGahee's final drive success led to the winning field goal. He could see an increased role next week if McClain can't shake the injury.


McGahee looking like the better back

I've been a big supporter of the work that Le'Ron McClain has done this year, as he's added a physical presence to the Ravens' running game.
But today, Willis McGahee looks like the back that can do more against this Tennessee defense.

McClain has picked up just 13 yards on 9 carries, and it's unclear if an ankle injury that he suffered in the first half is limiting what he can do. He's getting stuffed up the middle, and often times isn't even able to get back to the line of scrimmage before being met by Titans' defenders.

McGahee's shiftiness seems to be adding a new dimension to the Ravens' offense, which has been mediocre at best today. McGahee's stats don't look much better than McClain's (7 carries for 16 yards), but he's making cuts and shaking some tackles.

I say give the 2007 Pro Bowler a chance to make some plays.

Ray Rice did make an appearance on a Baltimore drive early in the third quarter, but he still hasn't seen any touches this postseason.


proCanes AP All-Pro Selections

Ravens S Ed Reed was the only unanimous AP All-Pro Selection and was selected along with Ray Lewis, Jon Beason and Andre Johnson.