Ravens' McGahee needs to step up now

One of the best things Willis McGahee said after his long touchdown run Saturday night was that he was trying to make a play because "he hadn't made a play the whole year."

He's right. But leading up to the run, McGahee had some good, solid runs on the perimeter against Dallas as the Cowboys were softened up by Le'Ron McClain, and also being tired from whipping the Ravens' offensive line, especially inside. The Cowboys got tired because they got no support from their offense.

But maybe McGahee will step up his game now. The Ravens need him to get outside and open up the defense. It would nice to see him make a few more plays since he has only made one this season.


Beason respects Ward, but ...

Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason is a prideful player and one of those guys who will answer a reporter's question straight-up.

Monday afternoon, still less than 24 hours after Sunday night's 34-28 overtime loss against the New York Giants, Beason was asked about New York's big night running the ball. The Giants rolled up 301 yards on the ground, the most by an opponent in Panthers history. Derrick Ward had 215 of them, an individual record for an opponent.

After blaming the Panthers' inability to stop the Giants' running game on sloppy play and poor communication, Beason was asked if the talents of Ward and backfield mate Brandon Jacobs might have had something to do with it.

“I hate you asked that question,” Beason said. “The politically correct thing to say is they're a great combination of running backs – really good backs. And they are. But based on the film, of the 300 yards, let's say, uh, 250 were on us. That's how I'll answer that question.”


Gore has plenty of incentive to play

SANTA CLARA — Twenty-two yards short of becoming the 49ers' first running back to gain 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, Frank Gore said Monday that he plans to practice this week in hopes of playing in Sunday's season finale against Washington.

But the milestone isn't Gore's only motivation.

Sunday's game also is an opportunity to renew a friendly rivalry with Redskins running back Clinton Portis, Gore's former teammate at the University of Miami.

"We talk to each other during the season," said Gore, who has missed the past two games because of a sprained left ankle injury. "We're so competitive. We always want to out-rush each other. He got me this year, but I'm going to try to come out this Sunday and out-perform him. If I do that and win, hey, it'll be a Happy New Year for me."

Competition aside, Gore noted that during his freshman season at Miami, Portis essentially served as his big brother. He helped him with the playbook, loaned him his car, etc.

"He used to look out for me," Gore said. "You know how other players would be (with) a young freshman coming in and playing right away, they probably wouldn't help him out or do anything for him. But he was different. He helped me out a whole lot."

49ers coach Mike Singletary said he wants Gore to get his 1,000th yard but only if the ankle is OK.

"Hopefully, he's healthy enough to go," Singletary said. "But if he can come back next year and get 2,000 (yards), that's even better. I'm good with (playing him), depending on where he's at."


Meet Bertrand Berry and Calais Campbell at the Big Red Rage from Majerle's (TU 12-23)

Come down to Majerle's Sports Grill at the Chandler Fashion Center on Thursday night for another edition of The Big Red Rage with Bertrand Berry! DL Calais Campbell is scheduled to appear as a special guest!

Bertrand and Calais will be joined by Cardinals Sideline Reporter Paul Calvisi and Cardinals Color Analyst Ron Wolfley. Fans are encouraged to participate in the Del Taco "Go Bold or Go Home" email promotion. If you have a question, send an email to ask92@cardinals.nfl.net and you could win a Del Taco Prize Pack!

Majerle's and Budweiser offer great food and drink specials during the show and there will be prize giveaways to the gathered audience.

Here are the details:

The Big Red Rage with Bertrand Berry

Tuesday, December 23
Majerle's Sports Grill (Chandler Fashion Center)
LIVE from 6:00pm - 7:00pm
Sports 620 KTAR/Cardinals Radio Network

Talent: Paul Calvisi, Ron Wolfley, and Bertrand Berry
Special Guest: DL Calais Campbell


Reggie Wayne moves to flanker

Reggie Wayne moved from split end to flanker for Thursday night's game against the Jaguars.
Playing on the right side of the formation, Wayne is right-handed Peyton Manning's first read. He caught seven balls for 108 yards and a touchdown in the win. It's unclear when Marvin Harrison (hamstring) will return, but Wayne could finish out the season at Harrison's usual position. It's also very possible that Wayne will also stay there in 2009 if Harrison is cut.


McGahee nets 129 yards, TD in Week 16

Willis McGahee racked up 108 yards on eight carries and caught three passes for 21 yards against the Cowboys.
With four minutes to go and the Ravens up by just two points, McGahee broke through a couple of arm tackles and sprinted 77 yards to pay dirt. It was the longest run of his career. McGahee again played second fiddle to LeRon McClain, but he was more affective Saturday night with limited chances than he has been in recent weeks. He may have earned himself a few more carries.


Dorsey Suffers a Concussion

The Browns lost another quarterback. Ken Dorsey, who is only playing because of season-ending injuries to Derek Anderson and Quinn, suffered a mild concussion and injured ribs in the fourth quarter. Dorsey was replaced by recently signed QB Bruce Gradkowski, who may have to start the season finale.


Edge Plays

Edgerrin James replaced the ineffective Tim Hightower to start the second quarter.

Hightower ran seven times for 12 yards in the first quarter. In addition, on the final play of the quarter, he caught a short pass from Kurt Warner and fumbled.

Stephen Spach recovered for the Cardinals to prevent a likely Patriots' touchdown.

James had 19 yards on four carries.

Hightower returned to see more action late in the game, finishing with 10 carries for 17 yards.

He also dropped a pair of passes.


Portis' score propels 'Skins past Eagles

Clinton Portis won't list this game in his pantheon of highlight performances, but the Pro Bowl running back did score the touchdown that lifted the Washington Redskins past the visiting Philadelphia Eagles 10-3 in Sunday's home finale.
Portis finished with just 70 yards on 22 carries, but coming on the heels of five losses in six games and against the NFC's top defense just two days after he woke up with back spasms, it was satisfying.

"I don't think nobody on our team had been Christmas shopping," Portis said. "I haven't bought one gift. [Now] you tend to buy a gift you wouldn't normally have. Before this week, everybody would probably [have received] $50 gift certificates."

The biggest gift Portis received Sunday was the fumble that defensive end Jason Taylor forced and linebacker London Fletcher recovered and advanced 12 yards to the Philadelphia 18-yard line 3:33 into the third quarter. Five plays later, Portis ran off left tackle and into the end zone from a yard out for his first touchdown in eight games.

"I really wanted to spike the ball, spin on my head, jump into the crowd, but they throw the flag for everything," Portis said, referring to the $10,000 fine the NFL levied on receiver Santana Moss for a touchdown celebration a week earlier in Cincinnati.

Portis, who already had played with injuries to his knee, hip, neck and ribs and who missed time Sunday with a bruised left hand, surprised himself by overcoming his ailing back.

"I didn't think I was going to play," said Portis, whose 1,407 yards are the third most in a season in team history, trailing his 1,516 in 2005 and Stephen Davis' 1,432 in 2001. "As soon as I walked in [the locker room], Santana said, 'You look like you're walking good.' Once you get the vibe of the locker room, guys start depending on you. Everyone looking [at you], you can't let your teammates down."


Hester could be key tonight for Bears

When Bears coach Lovie Smith said back in training camp that he thought Devin Hester could become a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, he didn't necessarily mean this year, but that's how quickly it has happened.

Over the past four weeks, Hester has caught more passes (17) for more yards (250) than any wide receiver, tight end or running back on the team. His yardage is double that of any other player on the team in the last month.

In the past four games, he has caught more passes than all of the Bears' other wide receivers combined and has more than twice as much yardage.

Hester and the Bears will be playing for more than just pride tonight when Green Bay visits Soldier Field, thanks to some huge breaks over the weekend.

For starters, the Bears must win tonight and Sunday at Houston to have any chance. Then, if Minnesota, which lost Sunday at home to Atlanta, loses again Sunday to the New York Giants, the Bears will be NFC North champions.

If the Vikings do win, the Bears can still make it as a wild card if the Cowboys lose at Philadelphia AND the Bucs lose at home to Oakland.
They would lose the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay because they lost 27-24 to the Bucs in overtime in Week 3 and to Dallas because of strength of victory.

First things first, though, for the Bears. If anyone can make the Packers' secondary pay tonight for its in-your-face press coverage, it is the blazing-fast Hester.

"He's improved a lot throughout the year," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "But the last few weeks you can really see he's playing a lot faster. He's playing with a lot more confidence. He's not thinking as much. He's just coming out and playing and reacting, which is a natural transition for someone learning to play the position."

Part of the reason Hester has emerged as the Bears' No. 1 wide receiver is that other players have failed to produce. But part of it is his own maturation at a position that's still relatively new to him.

Hester was a cornerback as a rookie in 2006, and last season he was spoon-fed after making the switch to wide receiver, catching 20 passes for 299 yards, with 11 of the catches and 160 of the yards coming in the final four games.

He had never started a game in the NFL at wide receiver until opening day this season, and he only has started six times in his pro career, although his playing time has been increasing.

"He's improved quite a bit in all phases as far as being a receiver," coach Lovie Smith said. "Running routes is a part of it. A lot goes into it. It's hard to just move over there in a year and expect a guy to have everything down, but he has made improvement each week.

"You just look at his last game and the threat that he was as a receiver. He's becoming the threat that we thought he would become."

Hester's numbers last week against the New Orleans Saints were modest: 4 catches for 46 yards. But he also drew pass-interference penalties of 39 and 38 yards, the second of which put the Bears in position for the game-winning field goal in overtime.

Hester has been a hot Bears topic all season, but much of the attention has been negative because of his steep decline in production as a kick-returner.

He scored 11 touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in his first two seasons, setting the NFL record as a rookie with 5 in 2006 and eclipsing it last season with 6.

By comparison, this year has been a major disappointment.

Hester is averaging a pedestrian 5.6 yards on punt returns, 23rd in the NFL and less than half his career average of 14.1 yards. His kickoff-return average of 21.9 yards is 32nd in the league, and he has been replaced by Danieal Manning, who is averaging an NFL-best 29.5.

It seems everyone has a theory for Hester's demise in the return game.

After a brief training-camp holdout, Hester signed a four-year contract extension that included $15 million in guaranteed money and could be worth as much as $40 million if he puts up elite numbers as a wide receiver.

It has been speculated that Hester's struggles in the return game are the result of trying to live up the money or the extra work he's putting in to become a go-to wide receiver.

But Smith said it's more about the unrealistic expectations of others.

"I think what weighed on Devin was probably just the type of success he had the first two years," Smith said. "He's spoiled all of us to where, if he's not scoring every time he touches the ball, it's 'What's wrong with Devin?'

"I see a guy who's developing his entire game. Returns haven't been exactly the way we would like, but as a receiver we're getting No. 1-type receiver play. We like where he's (going). Hopefully we'll see him take another step this week."

And why not? Hester has done some of his best work on a national stage.


Hester making steady improvement at wide receiver position

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Devin Hester has blossomed on offense in recent weeks, catching 17 passes for 250 yards in his last four games—the most productive stretch in his two seasons as a Bears wide receiver.

“He’s improved a lot really throughout the year,” said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. “But the last few weeks you can really see he’s playing a lot faster, he’s playing with a lot more confidence and he’s not thinking as much. He’s just playing and reacting, which is a natural transition for someone learning to play the position.”

After he entered the NFL as a cornerback in 2006, Hester was switched to receiver and responded with 20 receptions for 299 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. A year later, the dynamic playmaker has 43 catches for 568 yards and 3 TDs with two games remaining.

The familiarity that comes with playing the same position for a second straight season has benefited Hester, who played cornerback, receiver and running back at the University of Miami.

“It’s got to be tough when you go through college being flip-flopped around and then you get to the NFL and get flip-flopped around,” said tight end Desmond Clark.

“But from last year to this year, it’s a huge difference. He knows the playbook for one. He’s not out there thinking about what he has to do. He’s out there just playing. He can go out and just let his athletic ability take over instead of thinking about what he’s got to do.”

A record-breaking return specialist in his first two seasons with the Bears, Hester has flashed the same big-play ability on offense in recent weeks. Four of his six longest receptions this year have come in the last four games, highlighted by a 65-yard touchdown at Minnesota.

“He’s improved quite a bit in all phases as far as being a receiver,” said coach Lovie Smith. “It’s hard to just move over there in a year and expect a guy to have everything down, but he has made improvement each week. He’s becoming the threat we thought he would become.”

“This being his second year in the offense, it usually takes about that long before you get comfortable with any offense because you’ve got to think about learning an offense like learning a foreign language because of all the different terminology you’ve got to know,” Clark said.

In last Thursday night’s 27-24 overtime win over the Saints, Hester caught four passes for 46 yards while also setting up a touchdown and the winning field goal by drawing pass interference penalties of 38 and 39 yards. 

The Bears (8-6) hope that Hester will build off that outing Monday night when they host the Packers (5-9).

“He has been making [steady] improvement, but the last three or four games he’s really come on and made plays down the field,” said quarterback Kyle Orton. “He has a confidence in his route running, and it’s helped. He’s made big plays and we need him to make some this week.”

Hester’s productivity on offense increased as soon as he was replaced by Danieal Manning on kickoff returns, but Turner doesn’t believe there’s a connection.

“Not at all,” he said. “I just see it as having to do with getting more reps. He’s still a very young receiver, and it’s just getting reps. At some point for those guys playing that position it starts to click, and it started to click a few weeks ago.”

Whether or not Hester’s recent performance on offense is related to his removal from kick returns, many feel that the 11 kicks he returned for touchdowns in his first two seasons created unrealistic expectations for him as a receiver.

“When you saw what he could do on special teams and then when people thought about him as a receiver, they just automatically thought it was going to transfer over to receiver,” Clark said. “But there are a lot more things that go into playing receiver than meets the eye. 

First of all, you’ve got to know the offense and it takes a while to get that. The first year that Ron had this offense here [in 2005], we were terrible because we didn’t know the offense as well. It takes a little while and it’s unfair to expect him to do what he did as a returner at receiver.”

“I think what weighed on Devin was probably just the type of success he had the first two years as much as anything,” Smith said. “He’s spoiled all of us where if he’s not scoring every time he touches the ball, it’s ‘What’s wrong with Devin?’

“I see a guy that’s developing his entire game. Returns haven’t been exactly the way we would like, but as a receiver we’re getting 1-type receiver play, which is good. Hopefully we’ll see him take another step this week.”


Braun to play for Team USA

MILWAUKEE -- Before he plays for his team in 2009, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun will suit up for his country.

Braun said Friday that he has accepted an invitation to play for Team USA in the second installment of the World Baseball Classic, the 16-team tournament scheduled for March 5-23 at locations around the world.

"I'm really excited to get to represent my country," Braun said. "It's an honor just to get invited for the event, and I think it's going to be great."

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones and catcher Brian McCann, Angels pitcher John Lackey and Red Sox second baseman (and reigning American League MVP) Dustin Pedroia have also said they will play for Team USA, which will be looking to improve on its somewhat disappointing showing in the 2006 inaugural event.

The 28-man U.S. roster will assemble under manager Davey Johnson on March 2 in Clearwater, Fla., the Spring Training home of the Phillies. The squad will tune up with a trio of exhibitions from March 3-5 before its Classic opener on March 7 against Team Canada at Toronto's Rogers Centre.

Also in Pool C with the U.S. and Canada are Italy and Venezuela. The top two teams will advance to the second round in Miami against the winners of Pool D, which is comprised of the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico.

The Classic finals are scheduled for March 21-23 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Braun, who has belted 71 home runs in his first two big league seasons, is the first Brewer to commit to next year's Classic, but several other players expressed interest, including right-hander Yovani Gallardo, whose Mexican countrymen made it to the second round of the 2006 event. Considering Gallardo missed most of 2008 after undergoing knee surgery, the Brewers probably would prefer he remain at Maryvale Baseball Park.

But speaking in October, during the Brewers' brief playoff run, Gallardo said he was interested in suiting up for Team Mexico.

"I bet there are a bunch of guys out there who want this opportunity," Gallardo said. "So if the opportunity is there for me, I definitely would take it. I'm pretty sure the guys who did it last time had a great experience."