Aaron Gleeman

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Changes in Chicago Backfield

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Some day, someone may very well write a riveting book about the mess that is the Oakland Raiders in Art Shell's second stint as head coach. If that day comes—and the sooner the better I say, so someone get David Halberstam on the phone—my suggestion is that the first chapter begins with this quote, which came out of Shell's mouth earlier this week:

"We're doing the right things out on the practice field, but then taking it to the game has been a problem for us."

As soon as I saw that in print, I immediately pictured the Raiders in an offense-only practice drill, with Aaron Books flawlessly racking up huge yardage on long bombs to Randy Moss with no defenders in sight and Shell repeatedly nodding his head "yes" from the sidelines That's probably not quite what Shell meant, but I still think "It Worked So Well In Practice: The Art Shell Story" would be an excellent title for the as-yet-unreleased masterpiece.

While Raiders fans e-mail me with several thousand other title "suggestions" for a book about Shell's coaching this season, here are some other notes from around football …

* Reports out of Chicago suggest that the Bears could be on the verge of a full-fledged carry split in their backfield, because the plan was apparently to get Cedric Benson 15-17 carries Monday night even before Thomas Jones went down with an ankle injury. Regardless of how the coaching staff chooses to word the situation, Benson getting 15-plus touches means they're splitting carries unless the Bears plan to start running the option to really cut down on Rex Grossman's turnovers.

Jones received 20-plus carries in five straight games before being shut down against the Vikings' ridiculously good rush defense in Week 13 and was running very well before leaving Monday night. However, it's clear that the team's confidence in Benson is finally growing. He's received 10, 10, 9, and 16 carries over the past four games, rushing for 5.1, 4.6, 6.7, and 4.0 yards per carry over that stretch while finding the end zone twice.

It seems somewhat obvious now that Benson will take over for Jones as the starter next season, which is over a year later than was probably expected when he Chicago used the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft on him. However, lost in that eventuality is that Benson may very well work his way into a job-sharing arrangement down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Jones has played well this season, but if the Bears feel Benson is ready to take over the job they likely won't hesitate to slide Jones into a more typical third-down role. There's a lot of speculation within that scenario at this point, but with little playoff ramifications left to play for it'll be interesting to see how the carries shake out. My guess is that Benson will get more work than most people think.

* Showing once again that the organization values things beyond talent—especially when it comes to wide receivers, apparently—New England released Doug Gabriel just days after being held under 100 passing yards against Miami. It was an odd move, both because the Patriots gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire Gabriel earlier this year and because he was the team's best receiver for nearly half the season despite getting off to a slow start.

Coach Bill Belichick's tight-lipped approach means details will be hard to come by unless Gabriel offers them up on his way out the door, but it seems likely that he clashed with the coaching staff in a major way over the past month or Belichick simply never forgave him for a Week 10 fumble (although the latter seems far-fetched). Whatever the case, Gabriel will latch on somewhere by next week and will surely find a home for 2007.

I picked Gabriel as one of my favorite fantasy sleepers while he was in Oakland, liked his chances of a breakout year even more after the trade to New England, and really jumped on the bandwagon when he started putting up nice numbers with Tom Brady. Now he's looking for work, but I remain high on Gabriel for keeper-league purposes. As for what this leaves Brady to work with in the passing game … well, that's an interesting question.

Gabriel now joins Deion Branch as ex-Patriots and tight end Ben Watson may be out for several weeks with a leg injury. That means Troy Brown is back as a big part of the offense, running backs will be featured heavily in the passing game, and Reche Caldwell may actually be Brady's No. 1 target. Caldwell had just one catch for 12 yards in Week 14, but had a team-leading 35 targets over the previous four games. If you operate under the assumption that someone has to put up numbers alongside Brady, Caldwell's the guy.

Two-Minute Drill: Top Quote from Week 14: After Chike Okeafor beat future Hall of Famer Walter Jones for a sack, Arizona defensive linemen began screaming out, "He's not a machine!" … After splitting reps with Brian Griese last week, Rex Grossman will resume taking the bulk of the practice workload … Coach Lovie Smith indicated Tuesday that the Bears may look to get Devin Hester some touches offensively down the stretch ... Steve McNair has eight touchdowns and just two interceptions since coach Brian Billick took over as offensive coordinator … Amazingly, the Kellen Winslow-Joey Porter feud involves zero likable parties, suggesting a Mad Max-style fight to the death(s) may be in order … After New Orleans' blowout win over Dallas, the consensus from those involved seems to be that coach Sean Payton's knowledge of the Cowboys played a massive role.

Red Zone: Bobby Engram (thyroid) stated emphatically that he "will play this week," but seems unlikely to see enough snaps to be a fantasy factor even with Darrell Jackson (toe) out … Charlie Frye (wrist) remains unlikely to play in Week 15, but will reportedly try to practice Wednesday … Joey Harrington suffered a sprained ankle Sunday, but it's reportedly not considered serious … Daunte Culpepper's (knee) season officially came to an end Tuesday, as the Dolphins placed him on injured reserve … Kevin Jones (foot) was also placed on season-ending injured reserve, but the big question is whether or not he can play in 2007 … Bo Scaife (ankle) reportedly won't even try to practice until Friday … Hines Ward (knee) is questionable for Week 15, but was very optimistic about his chances of playing when asked Tuesday.


Aaron Gleeman is Rotoworld's senior baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. Also find him at AaronGleeman.com and on Twitter.
Email :Aaron Gleeman


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