Steve Mariucci has had his share of outstanding running backs during his eight seasons as an NFL head coach, but he says the Lions' current threesome might be his best group ever.
"I have been around Pro Bowl tailbacks several times," he said, "but from one to three, this is the deepest."
From one to three, the Lions have Kevin Jones, who rushed for 1,133 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry as a rookie last season; Shawn Bryson, a seventh-year player who averaged 5.3 yards on 50 carries in 2004, caught 44 passes for another 322 yards and is the team's most capable halfback on blitz pickup; and Artose Pinner, a third-year player who has finally worked his way past an injury suffered in the Senior Bowl in January, 2003.
"Really a good group," said Mariucci, who worked with Garrison Hearst, Charlie Garner, Terry Kirby and Kevan Barlow during his six seasons as San Francisco's coach.
The Jones-Bryson-Pinner trio is probably the best set of halfbacks the Lions have put together since the early 1980s, when Billy Sims was backed by Dexter Bussey and Horace King.
In the years since, the Lions had one of the NFL's best backs ever -- Barry Sanders -- but he was a one-man show, playing with adequate but average backups until his retirement in 1999.
The Lions have struggled through years of ups and downs with Greg Hill, Ron Rivers, James Stewart, Lamont Warren, Olandis Gary and others since Sanders' retirement, but they believe they struck it rich when president Matt Millen landed Jones in the 2004 NFL draft.
A strong finish -- four 100-yard performances in the final seven games of his rookie season -- convinced the Lions he is a worthy successor to Sims and Sanders as a rushing threat, filling an urgent need in Mariucci's West Coast offense. And the presence of Bryson and Pinner provide not only depth, but a change of pace in the backfield.
Bryson was coming off knee surgery in Buffalo when the Lions signed him in 2003, and he wasn't completely recovered until the 2004 season, when he blossomed sharing the workload with Jones.
"Shawn is just Mr. Everything," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "He's a great nickel back. He runs the ball well and he protects well. Shawn knows everything about this offense and is a big key for us."
There were times when Pinner's future looked dark as he struggled to come back from the broken foot he suffered in the Senior Bowl after his senior season at Kentucky. But if training camp and the preseason are any indication, he's ready to contribute also.
"He's had a couple of great runs," Harrington said. "He showed some speed up the sideline against the Jets; unfortunately it was called back. (Against Cleveland), he ducked his head in there on a power run and spun away from tacklers, broke tackles and made a great run."
The depth is obviously an asset to the Lions offense, but Jones remains the bell cow of the group. Expectations are high.
"If he does what he did in the second half of last year, he'll work wonders for this offense," Harrington said of Jones. "I've never shied away from saying that Kevin was the reason our offense was moving so well last year at the end of the season. The last six games, he was an All-Pro. It opened up everything for us."
--RT Kelly Butler didn't get a play as a rookie last season but has won the starting job, replacing Stockar McDougle, who was signed by the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent last spring. Butler is not a finished product, but the Lions feel he has made enough progress to handle the job.
--FB Cory Schlesinger is recovering from a broken leg and will miss the season opener, but the Lions are hopeful he will be ready after the Sept. 25 bye week.
--FB Paul Smith is expected to get most of the work filling in for FB Cory Schlesinger (broken leg). Smith, who has a history of injuries himself, is tough and built for the blocking duties the Lions ask of their FBs.
--WR Mike Williams will go into the season as the No. 4 receiver behind Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Kevin Johnson. The Lions' first-round draft pick is learning to play all the receiver positions and has the luxury of learning at his own pace.
--DT Shaun Rogers missed all of last week's practices after being kicked in the left shin in the second preseason game against Cleveland, but he is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
--DE James Hall has been given precautionary rest as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Hall, who led the Lions with 11 1/2 sacks last season, is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
--FS Terrence Holt, who saw limited action behind Brock Marion last season, appears to have won the starting job. There had been speculation the Lions might use R.W. McQuarters in that role, but Holt has played well enough to hold the position.
--QB Timmy Chang, who set a number of NCAA passing records at Hawaii, was signed by the Lions and will get a look in the final two weeks before the regular season begins. The Lions like his arm and his mobility, and might try to find a way to keep both Chang and fifth-round draft pick Dan Orlovsky on their practice squad.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
How badly did the Packers need to get three-time Pro Bowl tight end Bubba Franks under contract?
If they hadn't signed him to a seven-year, $28 million contract on Aug. 24, the threat loomed that they wouldn't have a dependable tight end for the season opener Sept. 11 at Detroit.
The deal was struck after Franks refused to sign a $2.095 million tender as the Packers' designated transition player.
"He's a big part of our offense," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "People don't realize how much of a part he is in blocking in our run game. He's probably the one guy who gets the least amount of respect for what he does."
Certainly better late than never, Franks' return to the team after staying away for the entire off-season and the first four weeks of the preseason comes at a critical time. Green Bay's potent offense is predicated on establishing an effective rushing attack.
Through three preseason games, however, the Packers are averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green has gained 61 yards in 26 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per rush, and exacerbated matters with three fumbles, two of them lost.
"Very suspect in the run game, as has been the case" all preseason, coach Mike Sherman said after New England held Green to 23 yards in 11 carries in a 27-3 win over the Packers on Friday.
Some of the struggles can be attributed to the drawn-out process of identifying replacements for departed standout guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Sherman wanted to name the starters at those positions after the first two exhibition games to allow the line to jell during the last couple weeks of the preseason, but inconsistencies among the candidates delayed the decision.
Veteran free-agent signee Adrian Klemm and rookie Will Whitticker have a tenuous hold on their spots as the starters to replace Wahle and Rivera.
The belated arrival of Franks, who's expected to play in the preseason finale Thursday at Tennessee, should help alleviate some of the concerns with the uneven blocking up front.
As important, Franks will give quarterback Brett Favre a familiar, sure-handed target at tight end that's been sorely lacking in the offensive scheme thus far.
David Martin, the incumbent as top backup to Franks, has missed considerable chunks of the preseason because of a groin injury. Sherman has almost run out of patience with Martin's proclivity toward spending more time in the training room than on the field in his first four-plus seasons in the league.
"He just needs to be a dependable player who we know can line up week to week without injury," Sherman said.
With Franks absent and Martin a frequent observer on the sideline, Ben Steele spent a lot of time working with the first-string offense. The second-year player, though, literally dropped the ball on the ample opportunity, drawing the ire of Sherman on a few occasions in practice because of an inability to hang on to the football.
Little wonder teammates welcomed Franks, the team's first-round draft pick in 2000, back with open arms.
"That's one more dimension to our offense. More firepower. The more firepower we've got, the better we are," said receiver Javon Walker.
Now that he's one of the five highest-paid tight ends in the league, the 6-foot-6, 258-pound Franks made it known he wants to be utilized better and more frequently in the Packers' offense, rather than just making hay in the red zone.
Franks' season catch totals dropped significantly from a career-high 54 in 2002 to 30 in '03 and 34 last season.
"Before all is said and done, I want to be known as the best tight end in Packers history, hands down. Actually, I want to be known as the best tight end in the NFL," said Franks, who hasn't missed a game in his five-year career. "It's just a matter of being put in the right situation. Hopefully, we can get things started in the right direction this year."
--GM Ted Thompson gave coach Mike Sherman a two-year contract extension Aug. 23, guaranteeing his salary through 2007.
The deal calls for Sherman to make $3.2 million per year, the same salary he's making this year as part of the contract extension he signed in 2001, when he took on the added title of GM after Ron Wolf retired.
Sherman, though, was stripped of his GM duties after last season and replaced by Thompson. Sherman said he wasn't interested in the possibility of pursuing a job elsewhere after this season had his contract expired.
"I get way too much money to do what I do as it is, to be honest with you, and am appreciative of it," Sherman said. "I like being here, and there is a value to that, being in Green Bay, coaching the Green Bay Packers. As far as testing the market, I didn't need to test it. I have the best job in the National Football League."
--DT Grady Jackson was expected to be removed from the physically unable to perform list and cleared to practice this week. He could play in the final preseason game at Tennessee on Thursday. The mammoth Jackson, whose weight is more than the 345 pounds listed by the team, has been rehabilitating a surgically repaired left knee.
--DT Cletidus Hunt, Jackson's fellow starter on the interior of the line, hasn't responded well to treatment for tendinitis in both knees and his right shoulder, which has plagued him since Aug. 5. Hunt returned to practice on a limited basis for one day last week, only to be sidelined again. His status for the game Thursday is questionable.
--DT Corey Williams, who had been filling the void left by Jackson and Hunt most of the preseason, didn't play in a 27-3 loss to New England on Friday because of a strained oblique muscle. Williams suffered the injury in the previous game, Aug. 20 at Buffalo.
--LB Na'il Diggs, out since Aug. 8 with a partial tear in the medial collateral ligament of his left knee, said last week it's not a given he will be ready for the season opener Sept. 11 at Detroit. The knee remains sore, and Diggs suggested it's not worth taking the risk of returning early if the knee isn't completely healed.
--WR Antonio Chatman suffered a strained neck in Friday's game at Lambeau Field. Chatman initially experienced tingling in his neck and arms and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher after being blocked into the ground by safety Rodney Harrison on an interception return. Tests taken at the stadium were negative. Chatman, who doubles as punt returner, walked out to the sideline in the fourth quarter and isn't expected to miss much time before the season starts. Harrison made a goodwill gesture by visiting the Packers locker room after the game and checking on Chatman.
--WR Robert Ferguson played in the game Friday, but not before missing two days of practice because of a heart murmur. He said the preexisting condition, which gave him trouble in college but never in a game, crops up only when he's in a relaxed state.
--QB Aaron Rodgers made slight improvement Friday over his first two preseason games. The Packers' first-round draft pick completed 5 of 9 passes for 52 yards, playing most of the second half in relief of Brett Favre. Rodgers, though, was sacked once, recovered his own fumble and had an ill-advised pass intercepted. For the preseason, he's 11-of-24 throwing for 80 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions, a team-high four sacks and an abysmal passer rating of 19.4.
With Pro Bowl center Matt Birk expected to undergo season-ending surgery, Cory Withrow is now atop the depth chart at the position. How long he remains there is another question.
Second-year player Adam Goldberg, shifted from starting left guard to backup center early last week, appears to be the long-term solution in the middle. When coach Mike Tice initially made the move, it appeared he was simply demoting Goldberg because he wanted to move Chris Liwienski back to left guard and get rookie Marcus Johnson in the starting lineup at right guard.
But a few days after the shuffle, it was revealed that Birk planned to have surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left hip.
Suddenly the method to Tice's madness became clear.
Goldberg had never played center before, but saw significant playing time at the position in last Friday's 19-16 preseason victory over San Diego.
"I've been in this system for three years now and I have two veteran centers to learn from and to ask questions about," said Goldberg, who entered the game in the second quarter and played the remainder of the game. "I have the offensive coordinator (Steve Loney, who also is the offensive line coach) right in my position room. All the pieces were there to make a quick transition."
Assuming Goldberg learns to play center at an accelerated rate, it wouldn't be a shock if he was snapping the ball to quarterback Daunte Culpepper on Sept. 11 when the Vikings open at home against Tampa Bay.
Withrow, after all, has been a career backup in his six seasons with the Vikings. He has started only six of the 64 regular-season games in which he has appeared, and five of those came last season in place of the injured Birk.
Using the 6-7, 310-pound Goldberg as the starter also would give the Vikings more size up front. Withrow is five inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter.
With Goldberg as the starter, the Vikings line would look like this: Bryant McKinnie (left tackle), Liwienski (left guard), Goldberg (center), Johnson (right guard), Mike Rosenthal (right tackle).
Birk's decision, meanwhile, came as a surprise to many.
He had undergone three operations for sports hernias and another to repair a torn labrum in his right hip in the past 13 months. The surgery on his hip last off-season was thought to be the final step to getting him back on the field.
But Birk also had pain in the other hip and decided to visit a doctor in New York last month while the Vikings were in town for a preseason game against the Jets.
Making the situation all the more interesting, is the fact the Vikings don't feel Birk needs the surgery and insisted he could play through it by taking pain-killing shots. The Harvard-educated Birk responded by asking the team to guarantee him $3.94 million in his contract, an unheard-of request in the NFL.
The Vikings said no thanks, but owner Zygi Wilf discussed the situation with Birk for about five minutes on the field before last Friday's game.
"We're still talking," Wilf said when asked where things were headed. "We plan to talk with Matt again (this) week. We don't know where it will go. But our biggest concern is Matt's physical health."
Birk, though, sounds as if his mind is made up. He plans to have the surgery performed in New York by Dr. Bryan Kelly early this month.
"My mindset right now is pretty much I'm having the surgery," Birk said. "I guess anything can happen. It would be very remote (I wouldn't do it)."
The recovery time is expected to be about 12 weeks, meaning the Vikings almost certainly will place him on the season-ending injured reserve list.
As for Birk's future with the team, he has $17 million remaining on the eight-year, $31 million contract he signed in September, 2001. That includes a $3.25 million base salary for this season, which the franchise is obligated to pay.
However, none of the remaining $13.75 million is guaranteed, and the Vikings could well ask the native of St. Paul, Minn., to take a pay cut, or release him, after this season.
Birk, though, came away from his chat with Wilf confident that he remains in the Vikings' plans.
"He just said he was concerned about my physical health. He wanted to just sit down and talk with me about it," Birk said. "He looked me in the eye and told me (that) and I believed him. That makes me think also that I'm in the long-term plans here and the long-term thoughts, which is great because I want to be."
--Aaron Elling, who had been locked in a heated battle with Paul Edinger for the kicking job, strained his right hip while warming up for last Friday's preseason game against San Diego. The plan had been for the two to share kicks, but instead Edinger got all of the work and made four field goals, including a 50-yarder, and his only extra-point attempt. Edinger, whose leg strength had come into question when he was signed after being let go by Chicago, also put one kickoff into the San Diego end zone and two others to the goal line. His shortest kick, not including a squib at the end of the first half, was to the Chargers' 4-yard line.
--RB Michael Bennett sat out the San Diego game because of a sprained neck suffered the previous week against the New York Jets. Coach Mike Tice speculated the injury could keep Bennett out through the Sept. 11 opener against Tampa Bay, but Bennett said that wouldn't be the case. Mewelde Moore got the start in Bennett's place but Tice made it clear that when Bennett is healthy he will be starting again.
--RB Mewelde Moore, who some believe should be ahead of Michael Bennett on the depth chart, sprained his left ankle in the second quarter against San Diego but said he thought he had just torn scar tissue from an old injury. Moore missed substantial time last season after injuring the same ankle, causing the coaching staff to become frustrated with his recovery time.
--RB Ciatrick Fason missed the San Diego game because of a sprained ankle but is expected back Friday night for the preseason finale against Seattle.
--WR Kelly Campbell, who has missed most of training camp because of a strained right quadriceps, is expected to be able to resume running this week.
--S Dustin Fox (fractured left arm) no longer has the cast on his arm and is expected begin doing conditioning work. Coach Mike Tice has said Fox might end up spending the season on injured reserve.
--G Anthony Herrera returned to the team after spending a week in the hospital because of a cellulitis infection in his right leg. Herrera appeared considerably lighter than his listed weight of 315 pounds. "We'll just go week-by-week with him," said Chuck Barta, the Vikings' trainer.
--CB Fred Smoot (right knee) played in his first preseason game against the Chargers. "It felt good, it felt really good," Smoot said. "It even shocked me how good it felt." Smoot, in fact, was so pleased with how things were going during the game that coach Mike Tice had to take his helmet away to stop him from going back in.
--WR Travis Taylor continues to impress and appears well ahead of Marcus Robinson for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.