Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Spaeth's Touchdown Efficiency

By Matt Pitzer

September 18, 2007

Fantasy Focus: Week 3 waiver wire wonders

Matt Spaeth: You have to love his efficiency: two of his three catches have gone for touchdowns.

Monday, September 17, 2007

High Praise for Kampman

By Paul Schwartz

September 16, 2007

The best defensive end you don't know much about is Aaron Kampman, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip last season as a reward for his NFC-leading 15½ sacks. He also amassed 113 tackles, the most ever for a Green Bay defensive lineman. The Giants hope that right tackle Kareem McKenzie can subdue Kampman, who's been bothered recently by a rib injury.

If healthy, Kampman might loom as an even larger threat in this particular game if Manning is on the sideline. Remember, backup Jared Lorenzen is a left-handed quarterback, meaning his blind side is opposite that of Manning. The right tackle protects Lorenzen's blind side, which would put McKenzie on the spot.

Friday, September 14, 2007

For coaches at elite programs, winning isn't always enough

September 14, 2007

Doug Lesmerises
Plain Dealer Reporter

The notes and e-mails still ask why, and truth be told, there's a part of Frank Solich that still can't believe it himself.

Four years after he was fired at Nebraska with a six-year record of 59-19, Solich is 2-0 in his third season at Ohio University, a year removed from a MAC East Division title and aching for every winning college football coach out there who is one loss away from fighting for his job.

"It's a mentality of what have you done for me lately, and that doesn't necessarily mean a whole year," Solich said. "That can mean a portion of a year, it could mean one big game. You know that exists, that this culture is that way, so I've got a lot of empathy for coaches who are put in that position. There are a lot of outstanding, proven coaches out there that at the blink of an eye are in trouble."

Since 2001, 13 coaches from BCS conference schools and Notre Dame have been fired with winning records, from Miami to Alabama, from Florida to UCLA. With coaches' salaries and athletic department budgets escalating, along with the influence of behind-the-scenes boosters, coaches who know they need to win don't know how much winning is enough anymore.

"I think you feel that you know, but you never really do," said Bill Diedrick, who was Tyrone Willingham's offensive coordinator at Notre Dame when that staff was fired after a .583 winning percentage over three years. He now is an assistant with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. "Just because you have a long-term contract, five, six, even seven years ahead of you, I don't think that puts you in a safe area."

In the words of one agent who represents several major college coaches, "no one is safe anymore."

Michigan boss Lloyd Carr, with a .748 winning percentage in 13 years and a national title on his résumé, is fielding questions about his successor after an 0-2 start and earning the admiration of his colleagues for hanging in there.

Ohio State, no stranger to the phenomenon after firing Earle Bruce in 1987 with a .755 winning percentage and John Cooper in 2000 with a .715 winning percentage, is preparing to face Washington and Willingham on Saturday, three years after he was dumped by Notre Dame. Minnesota is 1-1 with a loss to Bowling Green after firing Glen Mason with a winning percentage of .529 after 10 years.

"I remind my clients about Charles Dickens' book, 'Great Expectations.' And the better the job, the greater the expectations," said agent Neil Cornrich of Cleveland's NC Sports, who represents several top coaches including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Mason. "And it's not only how many games you win, it's who you beat."

There are arguments to be made about slippages in recruiting under Solich, the same ones that can be made with Willingham at Notre Dame, who was fired after a 6-5 regular season in 2004. But neither really had the chance to prove whether that was the case. Now Notre Dame is 0-2 under third-year coach Charlie Weis, who could be looking at a down year after a strong start with the Irish.

"We were basically going through the same growth period Charlie Weis is going through now," Diedrick said. "Were we where we wanted to be? No. But you felt you were really on the upswing. That's why I think it was a surprise move."

It's an upswing that in another time may have been allowed to occur, or fall short. But maybe the chance would have been provided.

"You have people who remember the good old days of Bo [Schembechler] and Woody [Hayes]," Cornrich said the longtime legends of Michigan and Ohio State, "yet Woody and Bo didn't have to compete in this environment today, which is so much more competitive."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Smith, Johnson Lead Shock to Victory

By Mechelle Voepel

September 12, 2007

PHOENIX -- Just because you've seen something before and aren't surprised to see it again doesn't mean you shouldn't take time to appreciate it.

Such is the case with the big-game performances of Detroit's Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. Yes, we've seen them take the Shock on their backs many times before -- individually and together. But each time, it's a reminder of the supreme talent of two of the best pure scorers in women's hoops.

The Shock's 88-83 victory over Phoenix in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday -- which gave Detroit a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series -- was another example of the how good both can be, especially in pressure situations. Thanks in large part to Smith's and Nolan's jump-shooting ability, Detroit put the heat squarely on Phoenix and once again changed the tone of this series.

Smith had 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting -- and she almost certainly would have had more if she hadn't been forced to sit some with foul trouble. In the last four minutes of the third quarter, Smith simply shredded the concept of defense. She made three consecutive 3-pointers and then a long 2-point shot.

"We have had a lot of open looks throughout the series," Smith said. "You're able to get them in a zone, for the most part. We were able to knock them down."

Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer fleeced Minnesota to get Smith in a 2005 trade, knowing that she would give the Shock that kind of scoring potential -- but other things, too.

"She's that person that no matter what's going on in the game, you can count on her to play defense and be levelheaded," Laimbeer said. "And when it's her time, she produces offensively. Who's making the big shots? It's Katie Smith, when she has to make them."

Phoenix's Diana Taurasi also lauded Smith. Not just her offense, but her defense.

"Anyone who plays against her knows how strong she is," Taurasi said. "She's a great defender, really. Plays angles really well. She's proven it in the past where she's guarded … people out of position, and she always seems to do a great job."

Meanwhile, Nolan had 20 points -- but also 11 rebounds and six assists. The complete aspect of her game can be lost when you're mesmerized by the elevation on her jump shot, but the truth is that Nolan understands basketball extremely well.

The players who are so physically gifted can seem like they're relying on just that ability even when, in fact, a key part of their success is that they really do know how to execute plays. Nolan knows.

"It's a toss-up between stopping their bigs and getting out to the shooters," said Phoenix's Penny Taylor, summing up the dilemma of facing Detroit. "At times we did a good job, at times not so. Next game, it's just more of a focus."

The problem is, though, what do you focus on against the Shock? While Detroit's perimeter shooting carried it to victory Tuesday, the Game 1 win last week was fueled more by Detroit's inside play, with centers Kara Braxton and Katie Feenstra combining for 29 point and 19 rebounds while forward Plenette Pierson made jumpers and drove to the rim.

Detroit's All-Star center, Cheryl Ford, missed the first game with her knee injury and has been limited in Games 2 and 3. She played a little more than 16 minutes Saturday and had five points and seven rebounds.

Tuesday, she also had five points -- but pulled down 13 rebounds in her 27-plus minutes. Ford carried the load as much as she could while appreciating what Smith and Nolan provided. (Plus, let's give a nod to Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson's 11 points.)

"We just needed our guards to hit some shots tonight," Ford said. "And they did."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Davidson Revamps Panthers' Offense

September 7, 2007

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is "geeked up" about the Carolina Panthers offense heading into Sunday's regular season opener against St. Louis. If the three-time Pro Bowler is right, the Panthers offense won't look at all like the one that struggled in the preseason.

"People will be surprised at what is going to happen on Sunday as far as our offense," Smith said with a grin. "I was surprised and excited."

Does that mean Smith will be a big part of the game plan? Well, he isn't saying.

In fact, he isn't spilling the beans about anything.

"It's different," he said. "I'm telling you, it's different. I can't say much more than that, but it's different. I like it though."

Smith praised new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson and his staff for their creativity and for best utilizing the talent the team has on offense.

"They've done a great job with some of the new wrinkles we have in there," Smith said. "After Wednesday, I was excited about coming in (Thursday) to see what else we were doing. I take my hat off to them because what we did in the preseason and what we're installing now is night and day. Those guys on the staff stayed up late the last two nights and they did some good things. People are going to be surprised."

Smith said the new game plan has required extra studying.

"I have to get my extra studying in because I can't just roll out of bed and know my plays. I'm actually studying. And that's the exciting part about it," Smith said. "It's back to football. It's drawing it up in the dirt and being able to go out there and say, 'What are we going to have this week?' This is the first time since I've been here under coach Fox where I've come in for the second day (of practice) and I'm excited and geeked up to find out what is going to happen? It's like, what do we have today?"

Smith wasn't always so thrilled with what was going on. He admitted to being a little worried when the plays the Panthers ran in the preseason were nothing like what they'd done in the June minicamp or training camp.

Although coaches repeatedly told him to be patient and that the offense would purposely be vanilla in the preseason, Smith began to wonder. That ended when he walked into the stadium on Wednesday and learned the game plan.

"I was not thinking it was going to be like this," Smith said. "It's totally opposite. I talked to coach Davidson and I told him I'm excited and I appreciate the things he's put in. They have put faith in us learning something new every week. And we haven't had that around here. So that's a good change."

Vrabel ultimate ‘utility infielder’

By Bud Barth

September 9, 2007

If you were going to build a New England Patriot from scratch, he’d probably look a lot like Mike Vrabel.

Smart, versatile, hard-working, durable, a natural leader.

And yet the Patriots not only didn’t build Vrabel, they didn’t even draft him. That was the good sense of the Steelers, who plucked Vrabel — then a pre-med major and defensive end — from Ohio State in the third round of the 1997 draft.

But Pittsburgh gave up way too early on the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder. Vrabel signed with New England as an unrestricted free agent in March 2001, and his career took off like a Trident missile.

“Well, it gave it a good shot in the arm,” agreed the multitalented linebacker, who is beginning his 11th NFL season and was voted a captain by his teammates for the third straight year. “Change is always a good thing. After four years (in Pittsburgh), things were pretty stagnant — at least in my career.”

After never starting a game for the Steelers, playing mainly on special teams and in nickel and dime packages, Vrabel started 12 of 16 games for the Patriots in the 2001 season, plus all three playoff games as New England won its first of three Super Bowls in four years.

He was an instant hit. In his first start at Miami, he picked off a Jay Fiedler pass on the Dolphins’ first offensive play, setting up a Patriots TD, and wound up posting career highs in 2001 — all of which were later eclipsed — in tackles, solo tackles and sacks.

“Coming up here and being with Bill (Belichick) and Romeo (Crennel, then the defensive coordinator) and Rob Ryan (outside linebackers coach) — guys I really remember meeting early on — helped me out as a player,” Vrabel said.

Vrabel had a career-high 9-1/2 sacks in 2003, the most by any Patriot during the Belichick era and the most in New England since Willie McGinest had 9-1/2 in 1996. And that was despite missing three games while injured.

Soon, just tackles and sacks weren’t enough. What started out “as a gimmick” in practice, according to Vrabel, soon became one of the Patriots’ top goal-line weapons on offense.

Vrabel, lining up as a tight end, evolved into the No. 1 option in the end zone for quarterback Tom Brady, who has connected eight times with the 32-year-old for short-yardage touchdowns, including twice in the playoffs.

In the Super Bowl XXVIII win over Carolina in February 2004, Vrabel had two sacks and a 1-yard TD catch. In December 2005 against the New York Jets — today’s season-opening opponent — he became the first player in history to record two touchdowns and a sack in the same game since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982.

But Vrabel’s versatility doesn’t end there. Strictly an outside linebacker and defensive end to start his career, Vrabel proved to be strong enough to move inside, too, and has played both spots in the Patriots’ confusing 3-4 defense.

“It’s not like he’s just a utility infielder,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I think he actually plays his position very well when he just has to play the one spot — not that he has (just) one spot, but you know what I mean, as an outside linebacker.”

Partly because Vrabel’s speed makes him a stronger weapon on the outside, the Patriots have decided to install free agent pickup Adalius Thomas — who played mostly outside linebacker with Baltimore — on the inside in their 3-4 alignment.

“When you take into account all the linebackers’ strengths,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees pointed out, “sometimes you make a decision based on a lot of guys, and not necessarily one guy.”

Vrabel doesn’t mind. He relishes the flexibility that has made him the prototype Patriot.

“That’s certainly been a reason I’ve had the success that I’ve had here, trying to contribute any way I can,” he said. “Up until a year ago, that included playing on special teams, too, and helping the team in that regard.”

Vrabel’s sturdiness is also becoming legendary. After missing those three games in 2003, Vrabel has played in 69 consecutive games, including playoffs, over the last three-plus seasons, starting 55 of the last 56.

Yet with the offseason signings of Thomas, wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and versatile fullback Sammy Morris, plus the training camp holdout of defensive back Asante Samuel and the suspension of safety Rodney Harrison, much of the preseason news has been about players who haven’t even seen a down of action for New England.

Does that leave established guys like Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, the heart and soul of the Patriots’ defense, feeling neglected?

“I don’t think so,” Vrabel said, launching into the Patriots’ all-for-one, one-for-all mantra. “I don’t think anybody’s done anything (yet). We all need to re-establish ourselves every year, every week, every day in practice. I think we have a group of guys that do that. There’s going to be weeks where some guys will play better, and other weeks where other guys will.

“It’s amazing what a group can do when nobody’s worried about who gets the credit.”

Today, the New England defense will be without Harrison and the injured Richard Seymour against the Jets, but it still will have old reliables like Vrabel, Bruschi & Co., who are used to holding down the fort short-handed.

“I think if you look historically, we’ve always done well when guys have been out,” Vrabel said. “I think those guys are going to be missed, but … we’ve always had guys to step up. That’s the nature of this business. I don’t think it will be any different in this situation.”

The age of some of the Patriots’ key defenders — Vrabel is 32, Bruschi 34, Harrison 35 — has been a source of concern among those who wonder how long they can continue to perform at a championship level.

“We wouldn’t be out here if we didn’t think we can still play, and Bill wouldn’t have us on the team,” Vrabel said. “They wouldn’t waste the time and the money and the resources they put into us if they thought we were too old.”

It’s too bad Vrabel has no plans to extend his pre-med studies and become a doctor because he has hands like a surgeon. As if just to show his TD catches were no fluke, he made a spectacular lunging leap during a training camp practice last month that ended with a one-handed interception as he snared the ball with a gloved left hand.

That kind of deft touch could be massaging hearts or sewing up incisions, but Vrabel wants no part of becoming a doctor, thank you.

“No, absolutely not,” he said, admitting he chose pre-med only because he wanted “a good, solid major … for something to fall back on” in case he didn’t make it in the NFL.

“I know plenty of guys who have done that (gone to medical school) and are still continuing that process. They’re not even doctors yet, and I’m going into my 11th year in the NFL. So, (when) you look at the amount of time they’ve dedicated their life to school and medicine, I think I’ll pursue a different career when I’m done playing.”

That might be as a coach. Vrabel, who calls Belichick “the best coach I’ve been associated with at any point in my career,” said he has entertained the idea of a spot on the sidelines when he’s done banging heads. He’s almost a player-coach now.

“He’s definitely a leader on our team,” said fellow linebacker Eric Alexander, whose locker is right next to Vrabel’s. “Mike is kind of like a teacher, like a professor on the field. From a versatility standpoint, he can teach you everything there is to know about the linebacker position because he’s done it all.”

And though the thought of coaching intrigues him, Vrabel hopes it’s a long way off.

“I think (coaching is) always a possibility,” said the former Buckeye, who is under contract through the 2009 season, by which time he’ll be 34. “I enjoy coaching; I enjoy staying in football. But right now I’m a player, and I’m going to try to remain one as long as I can.”

Q&A with Mike Vrabel

September 07, 2007

FOXBORO — Considering that he was once the proverbial ugly duckling, linebacker cum situational tight end Mike Vrabel has found quite the niche for himself. Now entering his seventh season as a New England Patriot, the 32-year-old Vrabel has entrenched himself as an almost indispensable component.

A pre-med major at Ohio State, Vrabel barely stepped on the field during his first four pro seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since signing with New England in March 2001, Vrabel's been a fixture on the defense and, occasionally, on short-yardage situations. Perhaps even more impressive than his versatility on the
defense (including high-level play at either inside or outside linebacker), though, are his receiving numbers: eight career catches, eight touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, head coach Bill Belichick has lauded his intelligence, referring to him on several occasions as one of the smartest players he's ever coached. Teammate and fellow linebacker Rosevelt Colvin says Vrabel is a "Swiss Army knife" because of his versatility and game knowledge. Quarterback Tom Brady has a love-hate relationship with him.

He loves him on Sundays, but hates Vrabel on Saturdays in the fall. The Michigan alum knows Vrabel's a Buckeye through and through, and one always seeking the opportunity to stick it to No. 12.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Leavitt Named Coach of the Week

September 10, 2007

Doug Lesmerises

It's . . . of the Week, the best of a weekend that was. Sorry, we ran out of room for Northwestern's big rally against Nevada.


South Florida coach Jim Leavitt:

He rationally chose a game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation instead of going for the win from the 1-yard line, then beat No. 17 Auburn in overtime, 26-23, the third straight year the Bulls topped a ranked team.

On my AP ballot, that earned them a No. 25 ranking, meaning I ranked four Big East teams (also West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers) to just three Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State).

Friday, September 07, 2007

Sign of the times: Blue-collar Clark a star

By Ben Smith

September 06, 2007

Colts tight end Dallas Clark came back from a late-season injury last year to have 21 catches for 317 yards in four postseason games.

Pssst. Hey. Tony Gonzalez. Can this guy have your autograph?

Yours, too, Alge Crumpler. And yours, Antonio Gates.

You don’t know it, see, but this guy here – Dallas Clark, that’s his name – is your biggest fan. Why, just look at him: eyes big as saucers, Duke of Dentyne smile, sweating a little now as the noontime sun hammers down and everyone melts, and he goes on and on about what incredible athletes Pro Bowl tight ends are, what amazing specimens.

“Those guys are out there catching 70, 80, 90 balls a year,” he’s saying. “It’s like, I don’t know how they do it.”

He shakes his head. Smiles a little more.

“Those guys are exceptional players, and they do exceptional things for their team,” he says. “You admire that, because it’s a tough position. You gotta block, you gotta catch, you gotta make plays.”

All of which the Crumplers and Gonzalez’ and Gates’ do, in spades.

All of which, for one magical month early this year, their No. 1 fan did better.

Super month

Peyton Manning knows where the credit belongs. And never mind that Super Bowl MVP trophy on the mantel at home.

“There is no doubt in my mind, if he doesn’t get back for the playoffs, I don’t think we win the championship,” Manning says.

He is not talking about Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison or the super rookie, Joseph Addai. He is not even talking about himself in the third person, a popular affectation for mega-stars.

He is talking about Dallas Clark.

Dallas Clark, who raves about other tight ends like they’re on an entirely different plane, like they’re up in first class while lowly old him makes do in steerage.

Dallas Clark, who lost four games to a knee injury in 2006 and still caught 30 passes for 367 yards and four scores in an offense that has more options than Heinz has varieties.

Dallas Clark, who came back from the injury to catch 21 passes in the Super Bowl run (second all time), and who put up yardage numbers that haven’t been seen in the postseason by a tight end since 1970, and who made one big catch after another, including a third-down snag against Baltimore that the Colts still talk about.

“As a good a catch as we’ve seen,” Manning says.

Oh, and don’t forget the nine receptions for 103 yards against Kansas City, third highest in team playoff history. And the six catches for 137 yards against New England, when the Colts came back from 21-3 down.

“He was huge,” Manning says. “Extremely dependable, makes great catches, he is a nuisance for the defense. Who do you put on him? Do you put a defensive back on him and sacrifice your run. We would not be the same offense without him.”

And yet after four years and 121 receptions, Clark can’t see it. Can’t see he’s one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Can’t see he’s anything but a regular working stiff, lugging his blue collar and lunch pail off to do whatever it is there is to do this week.

“I just like playin’,” he says. “I love playing with high energy, and trying to get an extra block for Reggie or Marv, or to get a big run for Joe. I love trying to do the little things, trying to make a big play for someone else.”

And what about big plays for himself? Can he see more for him this season, as everyone in the organization does?

Clark shrugs.

“I would love to do more of that,” he says. “But in this offense, that’s never gonna happen unless Marv and Reg take a leave of absence for 16 games.

“No, if they call for me to block more or just try to help get Marv and Reg open, I’ll do that. And if I can get some catches here and there, it’s great.”

And if he’s called upon to skip surgery well, … on his knee because the Colts need him for the playoff push he’s your man again. Went down against Tennessee, made it back for the regular-season finale, then went absolutely stone bonkers in the playoffs.

“It’s a true credit to him for sacrificing his body and getting ready to come back and help us,” Manning says.

And help. And help. And never see in any of it anything particularly special.

Overlooked star

Psst. Hey, Tony Gonzalez. Wonder why this guy’s not in the Pro Bowl with ya?

He doesn’t.

“Obviously as a team, you want to win the Super Bowl,” he’s saying, as the sun hammers and everyone melts and talk turns to the Pro Bowl again. “And personally, the ultimate goal is obviously to make it to the Pro Bowl. But I’m not gonna base whether I’m a good player or not on that.”

He smiles again. The sun hammers. And now Clark moves off toward the locker room, and over behind a makeshift barricade, hard by the locker room door, the fans standing 10 deep begin to fill the baking air with Dallas Clark’s name, waving footballs and helmets and any little scrap of anything for him to sign.

Pssst. Hey. Dallas Clark.

Can America have your autograph?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

NFL Breakout Stars for 2007: Donte Whitner

Donte Whitner S, Bills

September 04, 2007

Whitner has ball-hawking skills he didn't get to show much last year, but he could become more of an Ed Reed-type safety this season, with the ability to stop the run and create turnovers. Last year's first-round pick should have a better understanding of the defense and help the Bills improve against the pass.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bills S Whitner gains confidence entering second year as starter

September 04, 2007

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Now that he's had an entire off-season to reflect, Donte Whitner gets a big kick out of reviewing game tape from his rookie year.

"Man, I was young," Buffalo's second-year strong safety said.

A little over a month since turning 22, Whitner still isn't old by NFL standards - or any others, really. But the year of experience, after being thrust into a starting role immediately, makes the 2006 first-round draft pick feel like a tested veteran.

"It seems so long ago, but it wasn't," Whitner said. "But my knowledge of the game and the defence at that point and this point is like night and day."

It's showing.

As the Bills prepare to open the season against Denver on Sunday, Whitner has been among the most consistent performers this pre-season on a young and revamped defence.

Whitner had a team-leading five tackles in a 13-10 loss to Atlanta on Aug. 17. That included a clutch goal-line play stuffing Jason Snelling for a two-yard loss on fourth down to end the Falcons' opening drive.

Whitner has also been a force defending passes, making an eye-opening interception during a training camp session. Whitner broke on the ball the minute J.P. Losman released it, and made a headfirst diving catch over the middle and in front of a surprised receiver.

The dual role defending the run and pass is something Whitner excelled in at Ohio State. The Bills limited Whitner to mostly defending the run last season to avoid burdening him with too many responsibilities.

That's changing. The Bills have experimented with Whitner as a third cornerback in certain situations to help fill in for the loss of star Nate Clements to free agency.

"That interception was phenomenal," defensive co-ordinator Perry Fewell said, recalling Whitner's play in camp. "He sees more now. Not that he didn't see it a year ago. But he sees it and it registers now. And he's able to use his cat quickness to go for things more than he did a year ago."

The plan was to ease him into a starting role, but that changed when veteran Matt Bowen broke his right leg in the pre-season opener, leaving the Bills with no choice but to go with Whitner.

When veteran free safety Troy Vincent was hurt in the season opener, Whitner was joined by Ko Simpson to form the league's only regular all-rookie safety tandem.

The pair held up despite its inexperience. Simpson finished with 92 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and forced fumble. Whitner's production was even better, finishing second on the team with 107 tackles and an interception.

So much for the critics who suggested the Bills made a reach when they took Whitner with the No. 8 pick.

The criticism bothered Whitner last year, but he's moved past it, confident he's proven himself.

Taking on more of a leadership role, Whitner's eager to quiet this year's doubters, who question whether a young Bills defence can overcome losing three veteran starters: Clements and linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher.

"I was watching a lot of NFL Network, and they were giving all these other teams hype," Whitner said. "And I'm looking at these players and thinking, 'Our players are just as good or better.' ... I'm not going to say a number, but I think we'll win a good share of football games."

Fewell is impressed with Whitner's approach, recalling Whitner telling him he wanted to be the one to step up as a leader.

"He's taken that upon himself. And I thought that was pretty mature for a young man just entering his second year to say that," Fewell said. "I sense that he is ready to have a breakout season."

Bills Roster Top to Bottom

September 03, 2007

Safety: Donte Whitner is a future star. He will turn out to be one of the great Bills draft picks (I don’t care if they took him earlier than Mel Kiper predicted). I am worried about the rest. Ko Simpson was a pleasant surprise last year. But he has to improve. The backups? Tough but undersized Jim Leonard… and then real worries. George Wilson is a great story, switching positions and making a roster. But what if he actually has to play?

Peyton Discusses Clark's Value

September 05, 2007

During training camp, QB Peyton Manning talked about the special value of TE Dallas Clark to the Colts’ offense. Although WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne attract most of the spotlight in the Colts’ passing game, Clark is a multidimensional player who can play on the line—as a traditional tight end—and in the slot and line up in the backfield as a fullback. That can cause matchup problems for opponents, who have to decide whether to cover Clark with a linebacker, a safety or a nickel back.

Game Ball: Randy Shannon

September 05, 2007

Randy Shannon, coach, Miami

The new coach, a former linebacker, enjoyed the Hurricanes’ four interceptions and six sacks in a 31-3 victory over Marshall.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Marketing sports; local pride, too

September 02, 2007
Mary Schmitt Boyer

The office is much like the company -- new, sleek, funky and fun.

When LRMR Innovative Marketing and Branding, the marketing company formed using the first initials of its founders -- LeBron James, Rich Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims, was looking to open its first branch, it decided there was no better spot than in the IMG building in downtown Cleveland.

It could be seen as a little cheeky, the upstart renting space from the company generally recognized as the creator of, and worldwide leader in, sports marketing. But Paul sees it as a sign of respect.

"We respect IMG," he said. "They're one of the pioneers in what we're trying to do."

Paul is the president of the company, and Carter is its chief operating officer. Those two handle the day-to-day operations.

Obviously, James is their biggest client -- and, until recently, their only client. But the recent signing of former Glenville and Ohio State star Ted Ginn Jr. of the Miami Dolphins, as well as the establishment of the office, is a sign the company means business.

"In the beginning, no one was giving us a chance," Paul said. "We're out to show the rest of the world that we can do business the right way. We want to let the business world know we're here."

The signing of Ginn is the result of a long relationship between Paul and Ted Ginn Sr., the legendary Glenville football and track coach and father of the Dolphins rookie. It's also one part of a three-pronged partnership between the Ginns, LRMR and Beachwood-based agent Neil Cornrich, who represents Ginn Jr.

Paul, now 26, was 10 years old when he first met the elder Ginn in 1991. Paul was playing for the Sims Raiders team in Cleveland's municipal football league, and Ginn was helping out.

"He always took the time to speak to me as a kid," Paul said of Ginn Sr. "If you were in the neighborhood, to keep kids from going down the wrong path, he pulled you aside and talked to you as a man. . . . I'm a product of the environment. I graduated from Benedictine High School, but my heart pumps Glenville blood. I'm one of his kids, you could say."

Ginn Sr. said he always realized there was something special about Paul.

"I saw the athleticism, but also I saw the gift of intelligence and creativity," the coach said. "I saw it even back then. Now that's part of his job and his life."

What is part of both of their lives is the commitment to give back to their community, helping others reach their potential. In that sense, the partnership of the Ginns and LRMR was a natural, as was the association with Cornrich and his company, NC Sports, another established firm Paul respects.

Cornrich, who also represents former Glenville and OSU star Donte Whitner, has been in the sports management business for 23 years with major clients such as coaches Bill Belichick, Bob Stoops and Kirk Ferentz, as well as NFL Pro Bowlers Aaron Kampman of the Green Bay Packers and Mike Wahle of the Carolina Panthers.

He has known Ginn Sr. for about eight years and has developed a tremendous appreciation for the coach and what he's trying to accomplish. When Ginn Sr. introduced Cornrich to the LRMR partners and proposed they all work together on marketing opportunities, Cornrich found the young men engaging and energetic and serious about doing a good job and establishing a foundation for success.

"It's Ted Ginn Sr.'s vision to keep his kids together, to provide opportunities for the kids who grew up in his neighborhood and to be positive role models for the next generation," Cornrich said. "In order to be positive role models, they've got to be in a position of sustaining success."

That success does not have to be on the athletic fields. It can come in the classroom - or in the office.

"When Glenville kids started going to college and started playing on Sundays [in the NFL], the rest of the kids in the community said, 'Hey, I can do the same thing,' " Paul explained. "It's no different for me. I'm a product of that environment. They see I'm not an athlete. I'm not an entertainer. I'm a businessman. I don't have to be an athlete. I don't have to be an entertainer. They can say, 'I lived next door to Rich for 10 years. I've seen him have the same struggles I've had - and now look at him.' There's a sense of hope."

Ginn Jr. describes Paul as his big brother, even though he refers to him as "Little Rich."

"I believe in Little Rich," Ginn Jr. said in a telephone interview from Miami. "I believe if the company wasn't where it was supposed to be, he wouldn't have brought it to me. He wanted it to be the best situation for everybody."

According to Ginn Sr., who is opening the Ginn Academy this fall for boys who need extra academic and support services, this is all part of his master plan.

"We're building our own empire," said Ginn Sr., whose programs undoubtedly will produce a pipeline of additional athletes and potential business people. "We want to help everybody. . . . We'll be the pioneers getting things started for LRMR. We'll be pioneers of something totally different, based on family values and helping people reach their full potential. We're not forgetting where we came from. We want to build things to show the next kid we can pull the next one up."

Paul looks around his new office, taking in the bright blue or green panels that break up the expanses of white walls, the exposed ductwork in the ceilings, the concrete floors, the track lighting and the curvy leather furniture. He has just returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C., and will leave shortly for meetings in Las Vegas. He has phone messages to return and is late for a meeting, the sorts of concerns any young businessman has.

Considering where he came from, having a career and an office like this was a long shot. Then he smiles, which he doesn't do often, and says, "Chances make champions, where I'm from."

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