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Mid-week Crumbs

Pile Drives the Nickel D
Look for more of the revamped nickel scheme the Cowboys ran at the end of the first half Sunday. According to the Dallas Morning News Willie Pile has replaced Keith Davis as a safety in that package. This will allow Davis more time on special teams, where he has helped the coverage units make an impressive and necessary improvement over their shaky play against the Chargers.

The change will also allow Davis more time to concentrate on his coverage duties in the base schemes. Bill Parcells had to send chills through the faithful when he stated that Davis didn't even realize he made a mistake on Brandon Lloyd's 89 yard bomb.

Shaky But Healthy
The Cowboys have many problems but so far bad health is not one of them. That could benefit them as the marathon that is the regular season is taking a toll on several preseason favorites. The Patriots lost FS Rodney Harrison and OT Matt Light for the season this past weekend. The Broncos are holding their breath that CB Champ Bailey's injured hamstring won't keep him out too long. He's already playing with a separated shoulder. The Jets are weighing the news that QB Chad Pennington might miss another season. He injured his rotator cuff just one year after having it surgically repaired. The sports surgeon James Andrews says the injury is not career threatening, but Pennington's frequent injuries have the New York press proclaiming the Jets players in the Matt Leinart sweepstakes.

The injury that could most affect Dallas is the sports hernia afflicting Donovan McNabb. The Eagles doctors say the hernia will require surgery at some point but that McNabb can continue playing with it if he can handle the pain. McNabb returned from a scary leg injury a couple of years ago, so there is no doubting his toughness. But anyone who watched him play against the Raiders knows that the hernia is compromising his game. He's not the running threat he normally is. The injury also affected McNabb's accuracy, as he often over or underthrew open receivers. He's still Donovan McNabb, but he might not be Donovan McNabb.

It's the Bucs, Stupid
A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the past five seasons have seen an average of four teams league-wide make the jump from 7-9 or worse to the playoffs. My picks in the NFC were the Cowboys, Panthers and Cardinals. The Cowboys and Panthers are still in the running, but the Cards look -- again -- like a massive flop. The surprise so far has to be Tampa Bay. The Bucs had one of the most rickety looking o-lines in the conference during the preseason, but they've been outstanding so far. Tampa has also hit the jackpot in the draft's first round the last two years. In '04 they wanted a receiver. Tampa watched Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams and Lee Evans fly off the board before it landed LSU's Michael Clayton with the 14th pick. Clayton has been the best of the bunch so far, showing so much promise that K.C. Joyner already speaks of his Hall of Fame ability.

This year, the Bucs needed a runner. They again had to wait their turn, as Miami took Ronnie Brown and Chicago took Cedric Benson ahead of them. But once again, their guy is the class of the class. Cadillac Williams has three 100 yard games in his three game NFL career and Tampa suddenly has a balanced, explosive and young offense. DC Monte Kiffin has overcome the loss of Warren Sapp and John Lynch. In the watered down NFC, Tampa could have a fast track to the playoffs.

Assistant Excellence
The Dolphins were another team forecast to have a poor offensive line. Many observers felt the Dolphins had the worst unit in the NFL the past couple of years. Now, without major changes, Miami is 2-1 and had a 132 yard performance from Ronnie Brown this past week in its win over Carolina. For all the offseason changes new HC Nick Saban made, his most important acquistion was probably o-line coach Hudson Houck. The former Cowboys' assistant has become something of a miracle worker lately. He joined Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers staff after leaving Dallas and turned that talent-poor unit around in short order. Their rapid turnaround was one reason San Diego zoomed to 12-4 last year. Now he's making magic in Miami. O-line coaches used to work in anonymity. Today, they are considered as important as first round draft picks and get paid like them too. Hudson Houck shows us why.

Sundry Observations

  • End zone dances are usually irritating, but Bengal Chad Johnson's Riverdance-like jig this past week made me laugh.

  • Keep that demon holder away from Donovan McNabb: Eagles kicker David Akers nursed a bad hamstring all week. He tried to play with it Sunday but pulled up lame after the opening kickoff. The Eagles had to modify their offensive game plan without Akers' strong leg in their arsenal. They missed a PAT when LB Mark Simoneau blasted the ball into the back of a lineman. With the game on the line, Philly moved the ball inside the Raiders ten, giving Akers a long extra point attempt for the win. He gamely smacked the ball through the uprights. So what's the first thing his holder does? Why he jumps on Akers' back of course. Replays show Akers grimacing and reaching for his leg as he kneels on the ground. He was diagnosed with a torn hamstring yesterday and you have to wonder if the holder's boneheaded celebration is partly responsible.
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