NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS UPDATE 

lFANTASY NOTEBOOK: MOSS NOT ON THE FIELD, BUT NOT IDLE

Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... Hey now! The preseason roars through its second weekend and there's no shortage of developments, news, notes and other fodder for Fantasy owners to chew on. That being the case, let's get busy on this week's fun and games.

We'll get the ball rolling this week in New England, where the Patriots went out of their way to add offensive firepower over the offseason -- a goal accomplished in part by landing Randy Moss, who ranks fifth in NFL history with 101 touchdown catches, in a trade with Oakland.

As SportsTicker contributing writer Mike Petraglia reminded readers this week, the point was to give the offense a boost and Tom Brady something he hasn't had during his time in New England: A legitimate big-play receiver on every down.

Although he reported to camp in good shape, Moss made it through less than a week before pulling his left hamstring on August 1. He has now missed the first two pre-season games.

Still, nobody in New England seems to be too upset. Indeed, all involved seem confident Moss will leap right back into the fray in plenty of time to contribute as expected.

And, as Petraglia noted, once Moss gets back on the field, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have the enviable task of determining where his new star fits in.

"He's learning the system well and he's versatile," McDaniels said. "He's doing a lot of the things that we hoped for from a lot of our players. He's given us some flexibility and hopefully that will translate into being able to make a lot of plays on the field."

When Moss is making plays, he'll be doing so in the current system already in place. McDaniels and head coach Bill Belichick have maintained they won't be changing the playbook just for Moss. So not surprisingly, Moss has spent much of camp learning with his new playbook by his side.

"I'm really liking it," Moss said. "I've been taking notes and studying since mini-camp and I don't intend to stop now. It's just putting me into bed a little earlier and putting me into my book a little earlier too."

With all of the new terminology to learn, Moss is focused on making sure he leaves camp prepared to make the impact everyone expects from him this season.

As Petraglia went on to explain, once the plays and terminology are down, the relationship between Moss and Brady will be watched closely, something the Pro Bowl quarterback is prepared to handle.

"That's a big part of it, you have to build trust with one another," Brady said. "It's just like any relationship, it takes time to build and grow."

"We don't really have to click as individuals," Moss added. "I think we have to click as a whole unit. You have 11 players on the field and if one of those 11 lets down, then anything can happen. It's not just me and Tom who need to be on the same page. We need 11 guys on offense, 11 on defense and 11 on special teams and everybody needs to contribute. Everybody has a job to do. Hopefully we can all do that."

Brady believes the wide receiver's skills are definitely still there.

"He knows when to put his hands out, knows not to do it too early because that really triggers the defensive back to put his hands up, so that's a big strength of his game," Brady said. "I hope I can throw it as far as he can run."

I'll settle for just seeing Moss run for now. ...

With Moss relegated to walkthroughs and watching from the sidelines, Jabar Gaffney has looked the most in sync with Brady during the first three weeks of training camp, with Reche Caldwell next in line. As Boston Herald staffer Karen Guregian advised readers on Saturday, you can see the connection between Brady and Gaffney on both the timing routes and the option routes.

Guregian went on to note that Brady has been spending a lot of time of late trying to find his rhythm with Donte' Stallworth, whose workload has steadily increased since he came off the PUP. But Brady keeps coming back to Gaffney at key times during practice.

One can see that Gaffney gets more of the high-risk, high-trust type balls thrown his way.

That's called trust and Moss needs to get back on the field before he and Brady can develop any. ...

In Cleveland. ... As Canton Repository reporter Steve Doerschuk framed it on Tuesday: "Groping for something -- anything -- to hang on to? Need a reason -- any reason -- to get fired up about the Browns?

"Throughout training camp, Jamal Lewis has been the one-stop shopping center on these topics. ..."

I'll go ahead and note that Doerschuk's stance is a pretty accurate representation of the consensus among observers this summer. Head coach Romeo Crennel is among those impressed.

According to Crennel, Lewis "looks pretty good. His weight is down (to just under 240 from 255 a year ago), and he has a burst." According to ClevelandBrowns.com staffer Steve King, the last part of Crennel's comment is especially true when Lewis runs between the tackles.

SI.com insider Peter King said the same earlier this month, advising readers that Lewis was "the most impressive person in this camp."

And make no mistake about it: Lewis is sold on Lewis -- and his new team.

Speaking Monday, the former NFL rushing leader predicted "a special season."

"This is a great young team," Lewis said. "It's a young, talented group that's just hungry and real willing to fight. ... Not the Browns team that I'm used to seeing every year.

"It's totally different. It's gonna be a special year for us, I think."

While I absolutely believe Lewis is capable of outperforming his current AntSports.com ADP of 28, I'm not as willing to buy into Cleveland's offense as he is. At least not this season.

Down the road? Maybe so. ...

As Doerschuk pointed out, the offense features three quarterbacks who are 25 or younger, 24-year-olds Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards as key receivers, 22-year-old Joe Thomas at left tackle and a coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, who is younger than nose tackle Ted Washington.

Meanwhile, Lewis is indeed the Browns' best hope for consistent, significant production.

Fortunately, the veteran tailback is juiced about off-season surgery to take out bone spurs.

"It's the moves and cuts, those adjustments on the run that I'm making now," he told Doerschuk. "I wasn't really able to do that a lot last year, just because of the spurs.

"It was very aggravating. It hurt violently. ... Very, very bad. Those are gone. I'm back to myself and feeling good."

Doerschuk went on to note that Lewis gave the Ravens 1,132 rushing yards at just 3.6 per carry in 2006. The Browns are thinking 1,500 yards and something closer to Lewis' career average, 4.3, for '07.

Lewis also is jazzed about Chudzinski's scheme. He sees multiple formations and creative play-calling disabling defenses that try to load up against the run. He loves the fact Chudzinski wants to use him as a receiver.

And I'll say it again: Optimism logged, noted and filed with the requisite skepticism. ...

In Dallas. ... After rushing for 654 yards and scoring an NFC-high 16 touchdowns last season as the Cowboys' third down-and-short yardage running back, Marion Barber wants a bigger role. According to Fort Worth Star-Telegram staffer Clarence E. Hill Jr., Barber's goal is to be the Cowboys' starting running back now and in the future.

"Of course you want to [start]," Barber told Hill. "It's a goal of mine. If you are not motivated to start or train yourself like you are going to start, you shouldn't be playing. But you have to know your role. I just try to be ready when they call my name."

And right now, Barber's role is working off the bench behind starter Julius Jones. Of course, one could certainly argue that Barber is capable of handling a featured role.

Sure, Jones rushed for 1,084 yards and became the Cowboys' first 1,000-yard rusher since Emmitt Smith in 2001. But as Hill pointed out, the former Notre Dame star failed to gain more than 40 yards in five of the final six regular-season games.

Barber, meanwhile, topped him in yards per carry for the regular season -- 4.8 to 4.1 -- albeit with half as many touches. Now, Barber, who gained weight and added quickness in the offseason, wants more.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys plan on keeping their two-back system.

Barber and Jones combined for 1,738 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns last season. Only six teams had more production from their top two running backs.

"Whatever we have is good," head coach Wade Phillips said. "It used to be you had one running back. Now it's changed where a lot of teams have been able to utilize two good backs. That's the situation that I've walked into, and I think it's a good situation."

According to Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who got an up-close look at Jones and Barber during joint practices with the Cowboys the past two days, it's "a good problem to have."

A good problem for the Cowboys but a pain in the neck for Fantasy owners, who would have benefited greatly had the team made good on rumors that Jones might be available for the right price.

Looking for positives?

With Jones in the final year of his contract and not guaranteed to return next season, Barber could soon become the top back. Until then, Fantasy owners can take some solace in the fact that he's proven more than capable of producing at a front-line level despite being a role player. ...

In Green Bay. ... Brett Favre still remembers what it was like to direct an unstoppable Green Bay Packers offense. The Packers scored touchdowns on five straight possessions en route to a 35-13 rout of Seattle at Lambeau Field in the 2003 regular season.

"In that game and in games like that in the past, it's no different than any other team who's been together for a while; you go out and you can do things blindfolded," Favre said Tuesday.

Unfortunately, that's no longer the case -- something that was quite evident in the Packers' exhibition-opening loss to the Steelers on Aug. 11, when the Packers' mostly inexperienced offense did nothing to contribute to a Green Bay win.

Specifically, the Favre-led starting unit didn't pick up a first down in its four series and gained a total of 3 yards. "I was as frustrated when I came out as I think I've ever been in preseason," Favre said three days later.

Despite an impressive showing in last night's win over Seattle -- he directed the Packers to 17 points in their first four drives -- frustration is a feeling Favre might want to get used to, especially with head coach Mike McCarthy making it clear the team will be better off with Favre as game manager rather than gunslinger.

"In '99 there'd be one a day where you'd go, 'Holy (bleep), I can't believe he made that throw,'" McCarthy said of his tenure as Favre's position coach. "It's not like the old days, but to me that's good, because I don't need him to play like a wild stallion anymore. We're not built that way."

As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel staffer Bob McGinn noted, McCarthy was hinting at the formula that he and GM Ted Thompson apparently have adopted for 2007: Low-risk offense, rock-ribbed defense.

"Brett needs to go out and have his best year statistically that he's had in quite some time," McCarthy said. "Completion percentage. Low interceptions. We're going to have a good field-goal kicker."

Favre cut his interception total from an NFL-leading 29 in 2005 to 18 last season. But his 56.0 percent completion mark was the lowest of his career and his yards-per-attempt rate of 6.34 was the second-worst of his career.

Now Favre is being asked to take even fewer chances, accept the beauty of field position and let the defense win the game.

The question is obvious: Can Brett Favre even be that guy?

"There's two ways to look at this year," Favre said. "You're a young football team with a mature quarterback who has seen it all with a defense that by most people's standards is the best of our three (phases). You may not score many points. ... So don't make any mistakes.

"Then again, what happens if we have to score points? I'm kind of in-between that right now. At some point, you've got to turn it loose."

In other words, the answer is just as obvious: No.

With that though in mind, I'll go ahead and point out the continued development of Aaron Rodgers, who was taken in the first round of the 2005 draft with the idea that he would eventually replace Favre, has been one of the bright spots of Packers' training camp.

As Associated Press sports writer Chris Jenkins noted this week, Rodgers has consistently shown off his underrated scrambling ability, arm strength and poise in practice. He certainly upstaged Favre at Pittsburgh.

I'm not trying to suggest it's time for Rodgers to move ahead of Favre. But it's hard to miss the message McCarthy is sending Favre; it'll be interesting to see what happens when Favre ignores it. ...

In Jacksonville. ... Let's review, shall we? Byron Leftwich heads into the 2007 as the Jaguars' undisputed starter. He does so entering the final year of his rookie contract and coming off what by all accounts has been an impressive training camp. So it's rather surprising to see Leftwich dwelling -- and publicly commenting -- on last year's benching and subsequent disharmony with head coach Jack Del Rio.

In fact, as Florida Times-Union beat writer Michael C. Wright reported this week, Leftwich is blaming the organization for the manner in which the situation was handled.

In case you missed it, Leftwich was benched last season after sustaining a mysterious ankle injury two days before the Jaguars' 27-7 loss in October at Houston. Leftwich played poorly against the Texans, but Del Rio said the injury wasn't a factor in the quarterback's performance. Del Rio changed his mind one day later.

Citing Leftwich's injured ankle, Del Rio eventually benched the quarterback for the next 10 games, electing to go with David Garrard for the remainder of the season. Leftwich underwent ankle surgery and was placed on injured reserve.

"Nothing negative or anything," Leftwich said. "I just think the way things [were] handled in the past; it opens the door for stuff like this to be talked about. No matter how we feel in-house, it leaves the door open for these conversations."

Leftwich hasn't changed his stance on the statements he made last season. Leftwich said Monday that he would have postponed surgery until the end of last season had he been allowed to continue playing. He also doesn't regret the strain the situation put on his relationship with Del Rio.

"I still felt as though I could help this football team win," Leftwich said.

Strained relationship notwithstanding, Del Rio officially named Leftwich the starter Feb. 22 while the coach was in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. In the hours before publicly making the announcement, Del Rio admitted to mishandling the situation, thus opening the door for a quarterback controversy involving Leftwich and Garrard.

Del Rio also expressed those sentiments to Leftwich during the offseason.

"There were some awkward situations," Del Rio said in February. "Where it was awkward, I see that there would've been an ability to handle things differently."

So. ... Why is Leftwich bringing all this up again? Could it be after a most impressive training camp -- and knowing he'll become a free-agent after the season -- the former Marshall star is setting an early tone for possible contract negotiations with the Jags?

I certainly get the sense of a fellow making sure his employer know that keeping him will mean paying a premium for past transgressions. ...

In New York. ... Although he came up short in Friday night's exhibition loss to the Vikings -- an effort that saw two ill-advised passes intercepted and returned for touchdowns, there are those who believe Chad Pennington is on the verge of a strong season.

If nothing else, he certainly looks stronger than ever. In fact, Yahoo! Sports correspondent Jason Cole advised readers this week that Pennington looks like "a Rodin sculpture" after spending two years trying to get his body right.

"It's still a work in progress," Pennington, who played in every game last season for the first time in his career, said Sunday. After an offseason spent doing boxing drills and more than a dozen other exercises, Cole reports that Pennington cuts an imposing figure.

But to get here, Pennington had to endure two years of rehabilitation that make him sound like a lecturer in kinesiology.

"After being with so many doctors and physical therapists talking about my shoulder, I feel like I have a PhD in shoulders and kinesiology," said Pennington, who has had his right shoulder operated on twice since the 2004 season. "It's one thing to have an injury, but it's another thing to have a major surgery on that area. That's a major trauma to that whole area of the body."

As Cole suggested, for a quarterback like Pennington who gets by with what he calls "adequate" arm strength, it's not an easy injury to overcome. He's not a guy who can afford to be out of sorts because the margin for error is so small -- a fact that is often painfully obvious, much like it was against the Vikings.

So, the question persists as to whether Pennington will ever shed his middle-of-the-road status to join the ranks of the league's top signal callers.

After the past three seasons, that's a daunting question. For one thing, Pennington seems to struggle going up against strong opposition.

While dealing with a torn rotator cuff and the aftereffects, Cole points out that Pennington led the Jets to a 3-8 record against playoff teams. He had 10 touchdowns passes and 11 interceptions in those games. In a 41-0 loss to Jacksonville last season, Pennington had three interceptions, no touchdowns and finished with a 28.9 passer rating.

The 2003 season, in which he was limited to 10 games, wasn't much better as the Jets were 1-3 against playoff teams and Pennington had five touchdowns and eight picks. A bulk of the damage came in a pair of losses to Philadelphia and New England (six interceptions combined).

The explanation?

"If you have a secondary that is soft in coverage or you have weak coverage in any spot, he's going to find it right away," an unnamed scout from an AFC team told Cole. "Good, hard press coverage is a problem for him because he's trying to get rid of it quick and throw it to a spot. If you throw off the timing of the offense, he's going to struggle.

"You look at the history of good teams he has played well against, you'll see it was Indianapolis, San Diego before they really improved the secondary last year and New England after the secondary lost a bunch of guys. Those are all teams playing really soft and trying to hide people."

Bottom line: The Jets are still wondering if Pennington's work in 2002, when he led New York to the second round of the playoffs and had 12 touchdown passes compared to four interceptions in five games against playoffs teams, can be duplicated.

If not, Cole suggests, the question becomes when 2006 second-round pick Kellen Clemens gets a chance. ...

In Chicago. ... Here's an interesting theory; in an article published earlier this week, Chicago Tribune staffer David Haugh suggested that if the Bears' offense functions as well as it looks capable of since training camp began, Ron Turner will go down as one of the franchise's sharpest offensive minds ever.

Of course, Haugh conceded that given the Bears' long-standing issues with the passing game, being the sharpest offensive mind in club history is "a little like being one of the all-time best ice fishermen from Guatemala."

Still, Haugh's point is well taken. Turner's knack for tailoring his game plans to take advantage of whatever talent he has on hand has been key to Chicago's recent success.

So much so, it seems that team officials have gone out of their way to put more weapons -- and more dangerous weapons -- at Turner's disposal.

As Haugh put it: "Greg Olsen, Devin Hester, Cedric Benson. ... The playmakers have arrived."

Turner's challenge will be to spread the ball around through the air and on the ground so that everybody remains a threat defenses respect, which spreads the field and creates isolated mismatches.

It's something the coach has done before.

Haugh reminded readers that Turner practiced the same make-the-most-of-what-you-have philosophy during his first tour in Chicago under Dave Wannstedt when the Erik Kramer-led offense set team records without having a Pro Bowl runner or receiver. This time around, the only Pro Bowl players on offense have been linemen -- Olin Kreutz and Ruben Brown -- yet Turner still has managed to make the most out of what he has.

In 2005, with rookie QB Kyle Orton forced into action, the Bears leaned heavily on a running game that finished in the top 10. Last year, adjusting to Rex Grossman's potential and strengths, Turner loosened the reins and the offense produced seven 30-point games and became the NFL's second-highest scoring unit.

Haugh correctly notes that any inconsistency was more the result of Grossman's growing pains than Turner's game plans.

Haugh went on to explain the most consistent element of Turner's West Coast-based offense involves balance. The Bears have had a 50-50 run-pass ratio the past two seasons under Turner -- the same cumulative ratio during his first four-year stint in 1993-96.

Remember that next time somebody refers to Turner's play-calling as predictable.

Also remember that Chicago is 26-10 since Lovie Smith realized the biggest mistake of his tenure -- hiring Terry Shea in 2004 -- and brought in Turner. And that's why, according to Haugh, Turner heads into his seventh season calling plays for the Bears essentially serving as the head coach in charge of the offense thanks to freedom and responsibility Smith affords him.

Of course, when the list of NFL offensive wizards are mentioned, you still hear names such as Al Saunders of the Redskins or Mike Martz of the Lions without a whisper of Turner.

But as Haugh summed up: "Watching the Bears' offense so far this summer, expect that to change this fall. ..."

In Oakland. ... As Contra Costa Times beat writer Steve Corkran suggested this week, "Motivation comes in many forms for football players. Money. Playing time. Respect. Status. ..."

Corkran went on to note that LaMont Jordan knows them all too well.

He always seems to find something that gets his juices flowing, be it real or imagined. Two years ago, he arrived at training camp itching to prove he was worthy of the huge contract bestowed upon him by the Raiders and that he was talented enough to be a starter.

Last year, Jordan used a season-ending injury in 2005 and his dedication to learning the blocking scheme as motivation. This year, Jordan has been energized by the Raiders' forcing him to take a pay cut and the signing of Dominic Rhodes.

"There was nothing fun about what we were doing last year," Jordan said. "Nothing. But [new head coach Lane] Kiffin has definitely put back the fun in Raider football, and I'm looking forward to see how this thing comes together."

As Corkran noted, things fell apart from the outset last season.

Jordan went from a vital part of the offense to an afterthought. He caught 70 passes in 2005 but only 10 last season. His rushing yards dropped from 1,025 to 434. For the second straight season, Jordan averaged only 3.8 yards per carry and ended the season on the sideline.

That prompted the Raiders to sign Rhodes and select running back Michael Bush in the NFL draft.

"LaMont was kind of sitting in a situation where there wasn't much competition for him," Kiffin said. "We needed to get competition at that spot immediately. Dominic brings that."

In fact, based on his effort in the pre-season opener against the Cardinals, Rhodes brings plenty of that.

Jordan, who came on strong (eight carries for 67 yards, with a 32-yard TD run) in last night's loss to the 49ers, considers himself the starter until Kiffin tells him otherwise. So far, Kiffin has been noncommittal on naming a starter for the regular-season opener against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 9.

"We don't know who the starter is," Kiffin said. "We don't have a philosophy that you share carries to share carries. They've got to compete, and they'll figure that out by the way they practice and the way they play in preseason."

Fortunately for Jordan, Rhodes has to serve a four-game suspension to start the regular season for a repeat violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. That gives Jordan plenty of time to re-establish himself as the primary back.

Last season, the Raiders offense scored only 12 touchdowns in 16 games. With five games remaining, then-coach Art Shell demoted offensive coordinators Tom Walsh and promoted John Shoop.

This year, there's reason for optimism under Kiffin, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and offensive line coach Tom Cable, Jordan said.

"Overall, we're just going to be a better offense," Jordan said. "We have a system that we understand, the quarterbacks understand. We have a system that we like. But, also, the person who's calling the plays (Kiffin), that's going to be a big difference. ..."

But it will only be a big difference for Jordan if he plays well enough in those first four games to keep Rhodes from taking over upon return. But as any Fantasy owner who bought into the hype last year (a group that includes me) will tell you, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to Jordan. ...

And finally this week. ... In his Aug. 13 Monday Morning Quarterback column, King offered a handful of interesting schedule-related tidbits. Among the more interesting tidbits: The Bucs will travel 2,716 miles to Seattle for their first game of the season. The Jets will travel 978 miles, combined, to all road games in their first 11 weeks of the season (Baltimore, Buffalo, New York Giants, Cincinnati).

The Chargers don't play a Pacific time zone road game until Week 17.

The Jets play 14 games in Eastern time, two in Central.

The Chiefs play three of their first four on the road, and three of their last four on the road.

Hey. ... Who said life was fair?

That's it for this week's Notebook. I'll check in again next Sunday. ... In the meantime, those who haven't seen it yet will want to make an effort to check out our AugustUpdate News & Notes page -- which runs live from midnight Monday through midnight Friday throughout the preseason. ... Also keep an eye on the News & Views section for late-breaking headline news of interest; and watch the Headline News section for more in-depth reviews of current events -- including the Fantasy Notebook.


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