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Old 09-24-09, 03:07 AM
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Best NFL team right now, plus more opinions

Posted: Monday September 21, 2009 3:36PM;
Updated: Wednesday September 23, 2009 12:16PM
Jerome Bettis
INSIDE THE NFL

Bus Stops: Patriots facing a test; Raiders facing a mess, more notes

Story Highlights
Quote:
Patriots facing statement game vs. Falcons in Week 3 after 16-9 loss to Jets
Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell has seen development stall under new coach
Cris carter's impact on game-planning shouled make him Hall of Famer
Throughout the 2009 NFL season, SI.com's Adam Duerson will work with Jerome Bettis to get the six-time Pro Bowl running back's observations about the previous week's games. Bettis retired from the NFL in 2006 after a 13-year career.

• Was the Richard Seymour trade a mistake? Patriots-Jets was fantastic, but Falcons-Patriots will be a barometer game if I ever saw one. We all think New England is a much better football team than they've shown over the past two weeks, but we're not really sure. Is this a team that's getting by on its history? Or is this a good team in hibernation?

Conversely, the Falcons look pretty good, yet people are still asking the question: When will they falter? No one's giving them the benefit of the doubt. That's history speaking, too.

So this is a barometer game for both franchises. If Atlanta wins, it validates them as a legit football team. If New England wins, they're still on top.

Personally, I'd bet on the Patriots pulling it together, but they'll have to overcome a defense that's changed too much. Man, could they use Richard Seymour to make a few plays right now. Was cutting him loose a mistake? I think we'll know for sure after this game.

Now, if New England loses at home, and starts 1-2, then that's a serious uphill battle. On NBC last night, Rodney Harrison said no one in the Patriots' locker room is worried yet. Really? You have to know those guys did not sleep well last night. The Jets called the Patriots out. They said, "We're gonna whip you." And they whipped them.

If New England loses to the Falcons, too, nobody will be sleeping, period. Then the fear creeps in. These guys are used to being on top. They may not know how to handle losing. It's uncharted territory.

• Raiders' QB situation a mess.JaMarcus Russell's performance yesterday -- seven of 24 for 109 yards -- is an example of everything that's wrong in Oakland. You've got a lot of issues in Oakland, and most of them revolve around Russell. I go back to when they fired Lane Kiffin, who drafted Russell in and who had plenty of experience developing quarterbacks -- not just quarterbacks, but college quarterbacks. Kiffin was supposed to mentor and develop Russell. If there was any progress last year, before Kiffin was fired, it's evaporated. Russell doesn't look like an NFL quarterback. And that blame falls on the organization. Clearly there was not a lot of serious talk about Russell's future when Al Davis fired Kiffin.

So now you have a player who hasn't met his potential, and you have coaches who can't develop players. That's the Raiders organization for you.

Look at my old team, the Steelers. If you're a first-round pick on the Steelers, that team is going to find a way to coach and whip you into Pro Bowl form or they're going to die trying. Winning starts with the ownership, whose decision-making is crucial. Al Davis just doesn't work that way. Because of his philosophy and his reputation, he can't get good coaches to come there. And without coaches he can't develop his talent. JaMarcus Russell is just one of many examples of what happens in this system, and until Davis relinquishes control of that franchise, we're going to see the same thing.

Here's another thing I don't like about how Russell's being handled: Oakland cut Jeff Garcia, and now there's no one to scare Russell. As a football player, you always need the threat of being benched. If you don't, you never have to push yourself. For me, that threat was Duce Staley. Pittsburgh brought in Duce at one point in my career and I got benched. I knew Duce was a good player so I had to do something. Duce got hurt, I changed some things, and I had one of my best years ever.

I just don't think Russell will get that fear, that jolt, until he sits. And Bruce Gradkowski, Oakland's backup, is not going to scare JaMarcus into changing anything.

• The Saints are impressive. The team that's most impressed me so far: New Orleans. Hanging 48 points on the Eagles' defense is no joke, but here's what really excites me: they're smart. Drew Brees gets the ball to the open player and only the open player. He's not about one particular guy. Including Jeremy Shockey, they've now got five or six receivers who are plenty capable, and Drew will always find the open one.

Another thing that impresses me is that this team is not fixated on getting the ball to Reggie Bush anymore, and that's huge. For a few years, that was an issue. Now Reggie's an asset, not a focal point.

You have to like that the Saints have a respectable defense at this point, too. Bringing in a playmaker like Darren Sharper has made their secondary instantly respectable, more physical.

Long term, maybe they're not a Top 10 defense. But if this offense keeps this pace, it might not matter. Let's say the Saints allow 30 points a game. They can still win. Before you pick your Super Bowl winner ask yourself this: Can you name an offense that can keep pace with the Saints?

• Titans should have paid to keep Jim Schwartz. Let's be clear about why Tennessee's defense is struggling -- and it doesn't have to do with Albert Haynesworth. All anyone asked this offseason was, Will the Titans be OK without Haynesworth? They're OK without him, but they really miss last year's defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. They've lost their continuity. Schwartz's loss hurts them in so many more places than Haynesworth's. Last week it was the play-calling late against Pittsburgh. Why would they stop blitzing late with the game on the line? This week it was the pass defense. They got shredded.

Maybe Tennessee should have put some of the millions of dollars it saved by letting Haynesworth go towards paying Schwartz like a head coach. They'd be better for it.

• My Hall of Fame favorites. The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its 2010 candidates yesterday, and I like more than just the shoo-ins. Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith... Those guys are obvious. But just as much I like guys like Cris Carter, who helped change the game. A lot about the way coaches defend or attack the red zone goes back to Carter, a big guy who you tossed the ball up to and let him make plays. When you hear someone say, "The Giants can't score in the red zone because they don't have Plaxico Burress," I believe that's a direct result of Carter. Those big receivers are the receivers of choice today.

Ex-players think of the Hall in those terms: game changers. That's why I admire another guy in this class, Eddie George. Though he wasn't the first tall guy -- Eric Dickerson was before him -- he certainly helped break the mold for guys like Brandon Jacobs.

Another guy I like to get inducted is John Randle. Warren Sapp, for example, is a direct result of John Randle having played the game. Some coach said, let's try this athletic and fast -- but undersized -- guy in-between the tackles. Then 10 years later someone says, "Warren Sapp will be our John Randle." That says something about the guy.

And of course, I have to love Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator and an outstanding cornerback in his days. This guy helped invent a package, the zone blitz, that's used every day now. Last night I was watching the Giants-Cowboys, and there was nose tackle Jay Ratliff out defending a pass in the flat. That scheme came directly from the mind of Dick LeBeau, who's as much of a shoe-in as you can have in this bunch. If you know the NFL, you have to know about this guy.

• Ochocinco is good for the NFL. There's no way -- no way! -- I'd jump into the Lambeau stands, but Chad Ochocinco is good for this game. Chad's antics don't come from anger. He's all in good fun. He's all about entertainment. And when Chad plays around like this, you know it means he's performing well again on the field. He's earned his fun.

If anything, the NFL should be thanking this guy. What he does is good for the game. Maybe it brings more viewership. If you'd read in the paper last week that Chad was going to do the Lambeau Leap if he scores, wouldn't you at least have considered watching that game?

• A few more quick thoughts ...

--Looking down the standings, I see a few 2-0 teams that won't make the playoffs. I wouldn't get excited about San Francisco just yet; even less about Denver. Having a weak division helps, but the Broncos are not even the class of the weak AFC West. That's still San Diego.

--How about an 0-2 team I like? Tennessee, easily. With their personnel, they'll turn this around. Maybe not against the Jets this week, but their schedule gets easier down the line.

--I caught some flack for trashing the Steelers' line and running backs last week, but a lot of those things happened again. The defense was good, not great. They ran a little better and protected BenRoethlisberger a little longer for most of the game. I'm still watching these guys.

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